The state's chief judge is working on a way to ensure that poor defendants have lawyers now that budget cuts have forced the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to stop paying private attorneys to represent clients that the office can't.
The public defender's office frequently calls on private counsel because it can't represent more than one defendant in a criminal case or a jailhouse informant testifying against one of its clients.
Last year, more than 2,700 indigent defendants in Baltimore were represented by private attorneys under those circumstances, according to the public defender's office.
As of next week, however, Public Defender Nancy Forster is pushing the responsibility for assigning and paying for those private attorneys, called panel attorneys, to the court system.
The public defender's office now pays panel attorneys $50 an hour.
"To say there's an immediate solution oversimplifies the problem," said Wray McCurdy, chairman of the board of trustees for the public defender's office. "There is no Plan B sitting in the wings ready to be implemented."
A spokesman for Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said he's "considering how best to respond" to the public defender's decision.
If panel attorneys suddenly become unavailable, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said, the city's criminal justice system will "slow down or grind to a halt."
Judge Keith Mathews, chief of Baltimore's District Court, said he is awaiting instructions from Bell.
He said Forster's decision amounts to a transfer of an unavoidable expense from one state account to another.