By Lauren Kirkwood
The Daily Record
BALTIMORE (AP) — Spending on criminal defense for the poor fell 7.9 percent in Maryland from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2012, compared to a national decrease of 4.3 percent, according to a recent Justice Department study.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender has felt the impact of budget cuts, as the size of the support staff shrank and attorneys dealt with heavy caseloads in recent years, said Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe.
“Our caseloads throughout the state, on virtually all levels, are above standards,” said DeWolfe, who has held the post since 2009. “We have too many cases for the number of attorneys that we have on staff.”
His office employs about 580 attorneys, a number that has not changed much over the past few years, he said. Instead, other positions, amounting to about 15 percent of the office’s workforce, have been eliminated since the recession.
Maryland spent just under $88 million on indigent defense in fiscal 2012, according to the July 2014 study, “State Government Indigent Defense Expenditures.” It spent about $95.4 million in fiscal 2008 (beginning July 1, 2007), adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars.
While Maryland’s spending-drop was higher than average, it was not the most dramatic, the study shows — in New York, for example, spending fell by more than 40 percent over the same period. In other states, it increased by 20 percent or more.
Doug Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said he doesn’t predict a significant increase in per capita indigent defense spending any time soon, largely due to lobbying against it.
“There are vested interests that oppose funding for lawyers who are committed to defending a poor person,” he said, citing the bail-bond and jail construction industries.
However, future years may show an increase in indigent defense spending in the state, due to a change that Colbert long lobbied for and ultimately helped to bring about: the requirement that the state provide lawyers at initial bail hearings. The Maryland Court of Appeals found a constitutional right to counsel at these early proceedings, effective July 1, in DeWolfe v. Richmond.
The General Assembly earmarked $10 million for the program from the Maryland Judiciary’s annual budget, but it will not go to the public defender’s office. DeWolfe had estimated that handling the demand through his office would cost $28 million annually.
Without sufficient funding to the public defender’s office, Colbert said, the benefits gained by requiring an attorney presence at the beginning of a prosecution will be lost.
“Funding goes to the heart of the fairness of the justice system,” he said. “It restores faith that every person will receive a fair shake as an accused.”
In 2005, DeWolfe said, the public defender’s office worked with the National Center for State Courts to determine appropriate workloads for attorneys and set caseload goals, but with more than 200,000 cases per year, the office is exceeding these standards.
And it’s only logical that attorneys’ ability to advocate for their clients falters the higher their caseload climbs, Colbert said.
“There’s no supermen or superwomen here — we’re mere mortals,” he said.
The study obtained its figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey of state government finances.
In Maryland, criminal defense services for the poor are fully funded by the state government, and the public defender’s office provides representation through the state’s 12 district offices.
Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)