Administration, advocates at odds over bill to expand bail project

March 08, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Calling for equal representation under the law, supporters of a bill to have the Office of the Public Defender represent the poor at bail review hearings brought their case to Annapolis yesterday.

Advocates of the legislation argued that representing nonviolent offenders at their first bail hearings could save money and ease jail crowding. They were disappointed to learn that the Glendening administration opposes the bill because of its cost, estimated at $1 million the first year.

"With the surplus money they have, they should be able to do something," said Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat and the bill's sponsor.

The measure before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is contingent on Gov. Parris N. Glendening providing the necessary funds to pay for the additional lawyers.

The governor has put slightly less than $500,000 in this year's budget to continue a pilot bail representation program in Baltimore, but administration officials say the state cannot afford to expand the program statewide.

In a statement, the state Department of Budget and Management asked the Senate committee to kill the bill because of its cost. Administration officials said they wanted time to assess the effectiveness of the Baltimore pilot.

The public defender provides representation at bail hearings in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Harford and Montgomery counties. Programs in Anne Arundel and Harford counties are locally funded.

Last year, the public defender received $300,000 in state funds to hire four attorneys and support staff for Baltimore. The office represented more than 650 people in August, officials said.

"I think justice will be done where a defendant's lawyer is able to get into the case at a very, very early date," said Stephen E. Harris, chief of the public defender's office.

Douglas L. Colbert, who was in charge of a University of Maryland project that also represented Baltimore clients, said his office found that the majority were charged with nonviolent offenses.

"The stakes at a bail hearing are very high," he said. "It makes a difference having a lawyer there."

The project, called Lawyers at Bail, was funded by the Abell Foundation. It ended last month when its grant ran out. A study by the project estimated the state could save as much as $4.5 million by providing lawyers statewide.

Similar bills were introduced in the House of Delegates in 1998 and in the Senate last year. Neither made it out of committee.

"I'm very disappointed that the governor did not find funds in this worthy area," said Green. "But that's the way life is."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

Senate meets, 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets, 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate Budget and Finance committees hearing on SB 896, to allocate state share of national tobacco settlement. Noon, Senate office building, Room 100.

House Judiciary Committee hearing on HB 226, to impose civil penalties on police who engage in racial profiling. 1 p.m. House office building, Room 120.

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