Legal office didn't seek aid Legislators criticize public defender for not staffing drug courts

December 05, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Since May, attorneys for the poor have turned away hundreds of indigent people facing felony drug charges in Baltimore Circuit Court, saying they did not have enough staff.

All the while, state legislators who control the purse strings of state government say, the Office of the Public Defender could have requested more money, but it waited more than six months to do so.

The lawmakers say that was too long. State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday that state public defender Stephen E. Harris placed political concerns over constitutional rights.

"Constitutional protections take precedence over money disputes," said Hoffman, who spoke with Harris yesterday. "He wants to stay within his budget because he doesn't want to get criticized. His fear of being blamed caused him to do what he did."

The office, which provides lawyers for the poor, requested $750,000 in October to hire eight additional lawyers in the current fiscal year. The request came months after it gave 350 defendants letters telling them they were eligible for free attorneys but that the office could not provide them.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said, "There are provisions in state law for emergency expenditures of state funds. I think if we are a country of laws, we ought to abide by the Constitution."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the House's subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration, said the requested money has been approved.

Harris would not say yesterday whether he considered asking for emergency funding. The so-called deficiency request for additional lawyers -- the office had had 32 lawyers handling felony cases -- was made during the regular budget cycle for the next fiscal year. "We began the planning for the October request in the beginning of the summer. We have been working on this for quite some time," Harris said.

He declined to comment further.

Some officials, including Franchot, say Harris was placed in an untenable position. Baltimore's Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan opened two drug courts in May to address an influx of cases. The courts were opened after the legislative session and near the end of the budget cycle, when obtaining additional funds is more difficult.

Franchot said the legislature has placed "demands" on Harris to manage his $42 million budget better. Last fiscal year, Harris promised not to go over budget, as he had done the previous year, Franchot said. Harris' predecessor, Alan H. Murrell, drew much criticism for routinely going over his budget.

"The legislature has been very aggressive in criticizing previous deficiencies," Franchot said. "A lot of demands have been made" on Harris.

Franchot said the blame for the crisis falls on the "dysfunctional" operation of the court system in Baltimore. Prosecutors, public defenders and the courts need to communicate better, he said.

Harris is "not blameless, because there is some gamesmanship going on," Franchot said, but "fundamentally, the problem is a management problem."

"It is the responsibility of the judiciary to bring all the parties together and propose constructive reform so we don't have these crises occurring that affect innocent people's lives," Franchot said.

Maryland's Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said yesterday that he will meet next week with court officials to discuss the future of the two new drug courts, including the possibility of shutting down the courts until the public defender's office can staff them.

Though public defenders started handing out the letters in May, the shortage of lawyers did not become a crisis until October. Harris, Kaplan and Bell, along with others, met to work out a temporary solution so that charges against some of the defendants would not be dismissed.

Defendants must be tried within six months of their first court appearance, so the group of court officials developed a plan to bring many of the defendants initially turned away by the public defender's office back into court to be given attorneys if they wanted them.

The plan covered only November. As of Dec. 1, the drug case courtrooms were again empty of public defenders. The court arranged for volunteer lawyers to take cases for the first two weeks of this month.

The lack of public defenders has had defendants greeting court proceedings with blank stares and mystified looks. One man facing 20 years in prison on felony drug charges had only his mother to consult when prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would keep him out of jail.

George L. Russell Jr., a former Baltimore circuit judge, said the public defender's office walks a tightrope because lawmakers are reluctant to fund lawyers for defendants.

"Prosecutors have no problem because people think they are on the Lord's side. The public defender's office historically has been an afterthought," Russell said. Harris "doesn't want to say a thing to upset the legislature."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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