Crisis Averted As Public Defenders Survive Budget Slash

Belt-tightening, Two Resignations Haven't Hampered Legal Services

February 13, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — Despite state budget cuts and the June loss of its senior members, the Carroll Public Defender's Office is keeping up with its legally mandated services, department officials say.

Early last month, many public defender's offices were reeling after Gov. William Donald Schaefer decided to slash $1 million from the program in a belt-tightening move to reduce the state budget shortfall.

In some counties, the cut was felt immediately.

A Montgomery County circuit judge pulled two private attorneys out of a courthouse hallway in December and ordered them to represent indigent clients.

Such problems have been avoided by the Carroll office, said Carol Hanson, the district public defender for Carroll and Howard counties.

Hanson said that a Jan. 16 move by the governor to return $650,000of the state agency's original financing to pay for outside lawyers and expert witnesses helped avert a crisis here.

"We were going tolose that money, but luckily, we didn't," said Hanson. "If we lost the money to hire outside attorneys, I would have gone to the judges and asked them to appoint attorneys."

Several recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have mandated that defendants charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment are constitutionally guaranteed competent counsel, Hanson said.

Unlike many counties, Hanson said, Carroll assigns private attorneys only where there could be a conflict of interest if a public defender had the case.

She said such conflicts usuallyarise when there are two defendants in a case who cannot afford a private attorney.

In those cases, she said, the Public Defender's Office will represent one of the defendants and appoint a private attorney to defend the other.

In addition, unlike other counties, Carroll does not have many cases involving serious crime. That limits the number of cases that have to be assigned to outside attorneys, Hansonsaid.

The budget crunch could have been severe for the Carroll office if it hadn't had each of its four staff attorney positions filled, she said.

There were two vacancies in the office last June, when the two senior public defenders left because of a new state policy prohibiting them from maintaining a private civil practice on the side.

J. Robert Johnson, then Carroll's top public defender, and Michael S. Levin, an assistant public defender in the office for 16 years, were two of about 35 attorneys statewide that resigned from the office over the issue.

The policy was adopted by the state to boost morale and to ensure that the Public Defender's Office has the full attention of its attorneys, state officials said.

Johnson and Levin maintained that they never shortchanged the office and that having a civil practice gave them broader experience.

Hanson said the two men have been replaced by two attorneys "with a great deal of experience."

The newest public defenders in Carroll are Ed Barry, a formerprivate practice attorney from Arkansas, and Brian Green, a former prosecutor in Baltimore. Both men live in Carroll, Hanson said.

While the office has a full complement of attorneys, it is short two secretaries and intake workers who interview potential clients.

Hanson said the office also does not have an investigator for cases and has had to use one from Howard County. Carroll's last investigator was John H. Brown, who was elected in November as county sheriff.

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