Public defender issues dire warning on effects of upcoming budget cuts Offical worry that criminals may go free.

September 27, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

With his budget to be cut by an expected $589,000, Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris said that starting next week his office will stop hiring outside lawyers in cases involving multiple defendants.

Meanwhile, Del. Timothy F. Maloney, chairman of a House subcommittee on law enforcement, said yesterday the cuts will result in many criminal convictions being overturned on appeal because of inadequate legal representation.

"This budget cut represents a genuine threat to the public

safety," said Maloney, D-Prince George's.

In a letter to Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Maryland Court of Appeals dated Sept. 23, Harris said the public defender's $29.4 million budget was being slashed by 2 percent. The reduction, he wrote, would prevent him from paying for outside attorneys or transcripts in appellate cases starting Monday.

The public defender hires private attorneys in cases where the state must represent more than one defendant whose legal interests may be in conflict. The office has increasingly made use of outside attorneys, known as panel lawyers, as the number of multiple-defendant drug cases has soared in recent years.

The budget reduction is part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to deal with a deficit estimated at a staggering $450 million.

The state's deficit-reduction plan, to be unveiled Monday, is expected to include cuts in departments once considered sacrosanct -- health, human resources and correctional services.

State budget officials refused yesterday to provide details of the cut in the public defender's budget. "Everybody's going to have to give up something," said James B. Rowland, spokesman for the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning.

The amount of the cut could change before next week, Rowland added.

Harris did not return phone calls.

Some members of the state judiciary expressed alarm over the cut in the public defender's budget.

"You have an emergency here . . . a crisis," said Murphy. "The criminal justice system simply must operate. . . . The public defender is a public safety agency."

Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said the district public defender in Baltimore, Joy L. Phillips, told him of the cut in a meeting this week.

"Their choices were to lay off people or to stop paneling cases and stop producing transcripts," Kaplan said. "Either way, they're devastated."

He said judges will be forced to "enlist" lawyers in the courthouse to take cases without pay, and more cases will be plea-bargained in a court system where trials already are rare.

Maloney sounded a harsher warning. "What these cuts will have the effect of doing is no different than if we had to make cuts in the prison budget and let prisoners back on the street," he said.

The delegate, a criminal defense attorney, said some felony convictions will be overturned on appeal because the state will be unable to provide private counsel in cases with more than one defendant.

"Not only is it wrong, it is a real threat to public safety to have persons charged with a serious felony released on a technicality because the public defender didn't have the funds to defend them," Maloney said.

In Baltimore alone in fiscal 1990, the public defender hired outside counsel in 2,204 cases at a cost of $475,223, according to the office's annual report. Still, for the fiscal year that began July 1, the state gave the office $208,821 for panel services statewide.

The budget cut also will hurt the appellate division, which has seen its caseload increase from 833 in 1987 to 1,137 last year, according to figures in the annual report.

Antonio Gioia, who left the public defender's office in July after 10 years, said budgetary problems are crippling the office, which has a constitutional mandate to represent the poor.

"This trend of treating staff of the public defender with the same degree of priority as garbage collection, or pot-hole filling, is disturbing," said Gioia, now in private practice in Baltimore. "When it comes to funding our constitutional mandate, more attention is given to funding baseball stadiums or golf courses. This mandate is nothing but hypocrisy if it is not adequately funded."

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