Hugh caseload for public defenders crushes help to clients Defense lawyers feeling pressure to plea-bargain.

May 17, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

On many Sunday afternoons, Elizabeth L. Julian visits what she calls the "house of sadness" -- City Jail.

The folders she carries are filled with notes chronicling death, drugs and lives gone mad.

On this day, Julian passes a long line of women visitors, some with packages of cigarettes and toiletries, others carrying infants.

The women stare at her, wondering why she doesn't have to wait in line.

Julian, 37, is an assistant public defender in the office's felony trial section, where lawyers say the workload is so heavy that effective representation of clients is virtually impossible.

She and the 15 other lawyers in the felony section each handle 400 to 450 felony cases a year -- nearly three times the maximum recommended by national guidelines -- and that's why Julian and her colleagues spend time on weekends visiting clients in jail.

The pressures on public defenders contribute to the fast-forward pace of justice these days in the city's felony arraignment court, Part 17 of Circuit Court, which has come to resemble a plea-bargaining machine.

Baltimore's court system faces such an avalanche of drug cases that judges, prosecutors and public defenders -- who represent indigent defendants -- together must resort to wholesale deal-making: leniency in exchange for guilty pleas.

And there is little time for thorough evaluation of cases.

Indigent defendants unable to post bail often wait in jail for two or three months, without seeing a lawyer, until they appear in court to enter a plea.

And public defenders often come to arraignment court unprepared, meeting clients there for the first time.

Moreover, the constant procession of defendants -- up to 60 a day -- rules out in-depth discussions between lawyers and clients. Usually pleas are agreed on in a matter of minutes.

Julian and other public defenders try to get around this problem by visiting some jailed clients on weekends, although there is no money in the office budget for such overtime.

"I seem to get a lot further on Sundays," Julian says. "The clients are surprised to see you. You get a lot more respect for taking the time. And basically, this is the only time I have to do it."

At the jail, Julian sits in one of the seven glass-enclosed attorney booths. On her side of a partition are scribbled the words "Bastard Scum!" -- apparently an exercise in frustration by another defense lawyer.

Julian chats with a chubby-faced youth who is charged with the armed robbery of a fast-food restaurant. He has spent four months in jail, and this is the second meeting between lawyer and client.

The youth, a shy 16-year-old, wishes he had seen Julian more often. "It helps to know what's going on . . . to relieve the tension," he says.


At first, the youth and Julian, who is smoking a Newport, talk about expensive sneakers, sweat suits and gold tooth caps. Then the discussion focuses on the criminal charges.

"I'm not a bad person," the youth, a 10th-grade dropout, tells his lawyer.

Police say the teen-ager was a lookout in the holdup. He had been at the restaurant earlier looking for a job. After the crime, the restaurant manager identified him as the suspect who stood by the door.

Weeks after Julian's Sunday visit to City Jail, the youth's case comes up in Baltimore Circuit Court. Arguing that it is dangerous to "warehouse" the 16-year-old in the adult penal system, the public defender persuades a judge to send the case to the juvenile courts.

Julian says of her young client, "I hope I pointed him in the right direction." But there is little time to think about it, because there is always another case. And another. And another.

Besides handling an overwhelming caseload, Maryland's public defender's office is being hurt by budget cuts, low morale and a decreasing public tolerance of the rights of poor people accused of crimes, insiders say.

The office must represent "the guy who just raped your sister, the guy who just murdered your uncle, the guy who just broke into your house to steal property to buy drugs," says Baltimore defense lawyer Carl J. Sacks, a former public defender who says he "burned out" after more than 10 years in the job and now is in private practice.


He adds, "How can legislators then go back to their communities and say, 'Well, we want to give [the public defender's office] more money.' "

Robert Spangenberg, a lawyer whose Massachusetts firm has studied public defender systems around the country, says budget woes are crippling legal services for the poor nationwide. "There is no lobby for indigent defendants," he says. "They're kind of at the bottom of the list."

The Maryland public defender's office, which employs 450 people statewide, has a $29.4 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Its budget for the present fiscal year is $32 million.

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