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Changes To Md. Public Defender Law Passed

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate and the House of Delegates on Thursday passed measures to repeal a Maryland law requiring poor defendants to have a public defender present when they appear before district court commissioners, who decide bail and whether a defendant is detained after arrest.

The Senate passed its version of the bill 45-1, and the House passed a measure on a 133-0 vote.

Lawmakers are working to address a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling earlier this year that defendants must have an attorney present during appearances before court commissioners. Compliance with the ruling could cost tens of millions of dollars, if the law isn’t changed.

While changing the law so attorneys would not have to be present at the initial appearance before a commissioner, the measures also seek to significantly reduce the number of people who would be detained after arrest.

The two chambers will have to work out a key difference. The Senate bill would mean judges would have to work on weekends in order to make sure a defendant would not remain in custody for more than 48 hours without being presented to a district court judge.

The provision seeks to address conditions faced by defendants arrested on a Friday, because they could be detained three or four days without seeing a judge when courts are closed.

The House measure would not require judges to work on weekends.

“We’ll get it reconciled quickly, because the Court of Appeals mandate could issue as early as Monday– more likely somewhere around the sixteenth– but it’s important to move quickly,” Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said.

If lawmakers don’t change the law, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender estimated it would cost about $28 million a year to comply with the court ruling. There would be a comparable cost for prosecutors, as well.

“If the whole thing crashes and burns, we’re talking $30 to $60 (million),” Frosh said.

A key part of the legislation would divert thousands of defendants from being detained right away by issuing citations to people charged with offenses that carry less than a 90-day jail term. By making that change, the measure would alleviate immediate pressure on the public defender’s office, prosecutors and court commissioners. Defendants would still end up in court later and have access to a public defender at that time.

The bills have been passed as emergency legislation. That means the changes could take effect as soon as Gov. Martin O’Malley signs legislation. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the legislation will need to be reviewed before the governor decides if he will sign it.

The Court of Appeals ruling was made after plaintiffs led by a University of Maryland School of Law professor, his students and Baltimore’s Venable law firm contested the lack of legal counsel during an important part of the legal process, when a defendant’s liberty is decided by a district court commissioner. Doug Colbert, the professor, said in an interview earlier this week that while he believes incarcerating fewer people is a step in the right direction, he opposes not requiring counsel at the court commissioner appearance.

Lawmakers say they expect future legal challenges.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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