Lawyer shortage takes toll on courts Public defenders tell judges they can't take felony drug cases

December 03, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Six weeks after developing a stopgap plan to get lawyers for indigent defendants facing felony drug charges in Baltimore Circuit Court, officials once again have a dearth of defenders.

Public defenders, who represent the poor in the city's criminal courts, have told judges that they will not represent defendants indefinitely in two new drug courts because they do not have enough staff.

"We're back where we started," Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday. "We can do very little when defendants are not adequately represented. The whole system works when there are prosecutors and defense attorneys. That's what it's based upon."

The office of the public defender, which provides attorneys for VTC those who cannot afford them, agreed in October to represent some of the 350 defendants it had turned away since May.

The agreement, designed to make sure no criminal charges were dropped because of the state's "speedy trial" law, only covered November.

Court officials were hoping that the public defender's office would reallocate funds or procure more money for staff by this month.

What the office has done to solve the problem remains a mystery. It has not informed judges of its efforts, and officials did not return calls seeking comment.

By law, all defendants, rich or poor, are entitled to an attorney. The lack of public defenders in the drug courts could lead to a breakdown in Baltimore's criminal justice system. Under the speedy trial law, defendants must be tried within six months of their first court appearance or the charges can be dismissed.

State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris wrote Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr. on Nov. 20, rejecting a request that the office continue to represent defendants in the two courts.

McCurdy quoted from Harris' letter yesterday: "At this time we cannot further dilute our already inadequate resources to comply with your request," Harris wrote.

McCurdy has arranged for four volunteer attorneys to take the cases not covered in the stopgap plan in the first two weeks of December.

But McCurdy does not know what will happen to the rest of the cases.

"We will deal with that problem, but I am not exactly sure how," McCurdy said.

Jessamy said the lack of public defenders is contributing to a backlog in the city Circuit Court -- where 80 percent of the 5,000 defendants awaiting trial are charged with drug crimes.

"For a system that is already overburdened, this is a real problem," Jessamy said.

The problems started in May, when Baltimore's Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan opened two criminal courts to address an influx of drug cases. The drug courts came just after the legislative session and at the end of the budget year. That meant prosecutors and defense attorneys had little chance to get additional funds for more staff.

Prosecutors -- who greatly outnumber public defenders -- moved attorneys around so they could staff the courts. The public defenders began sending letters to defendants telling them they were eligible for a free lawyer, but the office could not provide them with one.

The crisis came to a boiling point in October. Officials from the public defender's office, Kaplan and McCurdy met with Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to hash out a temporary solution. That meeting led to the agreement whereby the public defender's office would hire attorneys to represent defendants whose cases were in danger of being dismissed.

In November, dozens of defendants were brought back to court to be assigned an attorney if they wanted one. Priority was given to jailed defendants.

But yesterday, Circuit Judge Marcella Holland's courtroom had two prosecutors, defendants awaiting hearings and no defense attorneys. McCurdy said he forgot to arrange for a volunteer lawyer to staff the court.

Defendant Ernesto Alecea, 22, a native of Puerto Rico who picks fruit in Westminster, sat in court for an hour while Holland tried to determine what was going on. Alecea was charged in April with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute it.

"They told me they were going to give me an attorney, but they haven't done it," Alecea said.

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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