Legal help plan eyed

County to consider renewal of contract for pretrial defense

Assistance for indigents

Service reduces jail crowding, say program supporters

November 04, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council will decide tomorrow whether to renew a contract to provide pretrial services for indigent defendants, an arrangement seen as a potent weapon in the fight against jail crowding.

The program saved the county nearly $350,000 last year and reduced the number of prisoner-days in the crowded detention center by 8,500, said James P. O'Neill, acting administrator of the county Bureau of Corrections.

Since 1996, the county has paid two-thirds of the salary of an assistant public defender to help defendants accused of minor offenses who don't have lawyers. The goal of the defender has been to secure expedited trials. The arrangement reduces the time needed to adjudicate a case from 30 days to about eight, O'Neill said. The Bureau of Corrections has sent a request to the County Council seeking renewal of the agreement with the state public defender's office. The county's contribution for the attorney is $34,798 a year, plus cost-of-living adjustments.

Advocates for prisoners' rights, arguing that many suspects are kept in jail before trial because they can't afford to post bond, are backing state legislation that would reduce or eliminate bail in many cases. The effort is led by University of Maryland law professor Douglas L. Colbert, who also has argued for increased legal representation for indigent defendants before trial as a way to reduce jail populations.

Although Baltimore County officials say the $70 million expansion of the county detention center in Towson is a certainty, neighbors are searching for a way to keep the county's jail population in check. The expansion plan calls for a doubling of the number of beds in two phases; neighbors hope a change in inmate population trends could eliminate the need for the second phase.

In reviewing the Bureau of Corrections' request, county auditors asked: If one assistant public defender saved so much money, why not pay for more than one? Others, eager to reduce the jail population, were quick to ask the same thing.

"Shouldn't all of those things be explored before you spend $70 million to build a giant new jail?" said Cathi Forbes, a co-founder of Coalition for Open Government, a group that opposes the expansion. "Aren't those things ultimately less expensive than the major construction project the county is looking at, and wouldn't you go forward with them before doing what they're doing?"

The responsibilities of assistant public defenders in helping to expedite trials are generally set by agreements between prosecutors and judges, said Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris.

"We are never at a loss for business," he said.

In Baltimore County, inmates who intend to plead guilty, are not accused of felonies or violent offenses and are not facing multiple charges are eligible for the program, O'Neill said.

Although he said he needs to study the numbers more thoroughly, O'Neill said he doesn't think there are many more inmates who could be helped by the hiring of a second assistant public defender. And changing eligibility requirements to allow more defendants to participate wouldn't be a good idea, he said.

"If we're expediting trials for people who are in here for violent felonies, I don't think that is something the system can do or that we want to do," he said.

County Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said the county should study the issue but proceed with caution.

"If it is appropriate, then we should move forward, but there are some individuals that I as a citizen would not want being released quickly or on their own recognizance," he said.

The county should not only focus on expediting trials but should also provide an assistant public defender to represent all indigent clients at bail hearings, Colbert said.

Concentrating on expedited trials can encourage the innocent to plead guilty as a means of getting out of jail faster, Colbert said. Even if the guilty plea results in no additional jail time or fines, the consequences of having a criminal record can be devastating when an individual applies for a job or a mortgage, he said.

From the standpoints of cost and justice, the county would be wise to provide an attorney at bail hearings for indigent defendants, Colbert said.

"Denying people a lawyer is a sure-fire prescription for unnecessary jail overcrowding or coercing pleas from innocent people," Colbert said.

Other area jurisdictions, including Harford and Montgomery counties, work with the state to provide an assistant public defender at bail hearings.

Lloyd G. Merriam, district public defender for Harford County, said that in the five years the program has been in effect there, the share of jail beds being used by pretrial inmates has dropped from 50 percent to about 36 percent.

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