ANNAPOLIS — This legislative session, the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee will work to provide legal counsel at criminal defendants’ initial appearances before district court commissioners. So, on Thursday, the committee members visited the Anne Arundel County District Court in Annapolis to observe pretrial proceedings and visit a commissioner’s office.
Committee Chair Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, and other delegates looked on in a courtroom as Judge John McKenna conducted bail reviews via television with defendants at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center.
The defendants – accused of crimes ranging from theft to assault to driving under the influence – had already appeared before a commissioner, who decides whether a defendant should be detained pending trial. The committee members must develop legislation to enforce the state Court of Appeals’ 2013 decision in DeWolfe v. Richmond, which requires the state to provide attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot afford representation at their initial appearances.
Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, an attorney, has had firsthand experience with the effects of DeWolfe. He participates in the District Court of Maryland Appointed Attorneys Program, which was founded in May to pay attorneys for their service at initial appearances.
Anderson said the program, budgeted at $10 million, has been overbooking attorneys and could be reduced to about $8 million.
The judiciary system “doesn’t want it part of their budget anymore,” he said. “If we [committee members] recommend this continue … I would certainly support recommending it to be on the budget of the Office of the Public Defender.”
The delegates visited the district court to learn more about the process they will be working to reform. With 11 new members on the 22-person committee, Anderson said, the exposure to a judge and defendants was critical.
“It’s extremely important for them to have a point of reference,” he said. “People have preconceived notions about all of these things.”
In addition to attending the bond reviews and stopping by a district court commissioner’s office, the committee members spoke with District Court of Maryland Chief Judge John Morrissey to learn more about the pretrial process.
“I think it’s important for everyone to understand how our justice system works,” Morrissey said.
The committee also toured the Prince George’s County Correctional Center on Tuesday. Anderson said the visit was another opportunity for delegates to gain a better appreciation for the systems their legislation can affect.
“Much of our committee had never been to a detention center,” he said, “so they got to hear the bars close behind them.”