Defender to continue to refuse new clients

More money promised, but it won't arrive until beginning of July

Some cases `wait listed'

10 attorney positions added to state budget to alleviate crunch

April 03, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Despite promises from state lawmakers to budget money for 10 new lawyers for his office, Public Defender Stephen E. Harris said yesterday his staff will continue to refuse new clients - until the attorneys are on board.

Public defenders began refusing new cases March 22, when four people were turned away for assistance - action that followed a warning by Harris that unless his office receives $1.8 million from the state to hire 16 additional attorneys, new clients were in jeopardy of not getting assistance.

Last week, House and Senate budget negotiators added language to the budget that calls for 13 new positions in the Baltimore public defender's office, including 10 attorneys, with the money coming from a future deficiency appropriation.

"We haven't received any official notice ... that there's going to be any relief," Harris said yesterday. "All I know is what I read in the paper."

Harris said he assumes the money would start with the fiscal year, on July 1, which means no change in the situation through June.

"If we have the additional lawyers, the average lawyer's caseload would be such that we could give effective representation," Harris said. "The problem of what happens between now and July, short-term, I don't know."

Last week, a spokeswoman for the public defender's office predicted it would have turned away nearly 30 people by Monday. But the office has been "wait listing" clients, meaning they are initially refused help but later assigned an attorney as caseloads become manageable, Harris said.

"What they're doing is that when a lawyer closes two cases, then they can take two more," Harris said. But none of his attorneys is working more than 60 cases at one time, he said.

"They are assigning cases on an attorney-available basis," he said.

Harris said he thinks the money came through because of backing by the city's legislative delegation, to whom he and Baltimore's chief public defender, Elizabeth L. Julian, spoke March 22.

"We told them ... about the fact that poor citizens of Baltimore were getting what was considered ineffective representation ... about eight minutes per day per case with 60 clients," Harris said. "Some [of the delegates] were upset that people accused of serious crimes could possibly be back on the streets for lack of a speedy trial."

Harris said the delegates sent a letter to Glendening supporting his request for funds for additional attorneys.

He said the public defender's office represents 85 percent to 90 percent of the defendants being prosecuted in Baltimore.

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