Public Defenders' Identity Crisis

As Budgets Tighten, Pressure Rises For Them To Stop Helping Clients Beyond The Courtroom

September 06, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

There was no direct evidence showing that Vernice Harris was the person who gave her 2-year-old daughter a fatal dose of methadone. But with the promise of drug and mental health treatment instead of hard time, Harris pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter. She quickly failed out of the program, and now is serving 10 years in prison.

Harris' lawyer, public defender Maureen Rowland, remains haunted by the result. Her client's right to a fair trial was overshadowed, she believes, by her agency's bent toward social work.

"Really, what good did I do her?" asked Rowland. "It showed me how misguided it is to get too involved in trying to help someone."

The case illustrates an identity crisis facing the Maryland Office of the Public Defender - a struggle highlighted by the sudden firing two weeks ago of director Nancy S. Forster. Should the agency's 500 attorneys and hundreds of support staff focus solely on legal duties, or strive for loftier goals, such as reducing crime and rehabilitating criminals?

Forster was considered one of the country's most socially progressive public defenders, but her oversight board wanted a more streamlined approach, a view given new urgency by the shrinking state budget.

Many of Rowland's colleagues believe in the holistic, community-based approach Forster favored. Working from a storefront office on Park Heights Avenue, Natalie Finegar said she helps criminal defendants with "whatever they need."

Finegar leads the 11-person Neighborhood Defenders Division, which Forster started in April 2007 in one of the most crime-afflicted areas of the state. The lawyers represent anyone arrested in Northwest Baltimore who qualifies for a public defender. And along with a social worker, they hand out condoms, give advice on education and job training, seek beds for drug addicts and help expunge criminal records.

"To try the case or negotiate a good deal and ignore everything else is like doing half the job," said Edie Cimino, one of the division's attorneys. She compared it to an emergency room doctor who releases a patient without aftercare instructions.

Public defenders are often forced to contend with social issues because a prosecutor proposes a guilty plea that includes drug treatment instead of jail or a judge suspends a prison sentence if a defendant seeks employment, lawyers say.

Forster, a 25-year veteran of the state agency and its leader for the past five years, said in an interview last week that helping clients rebuild their lives so that they don't commit new crimes "fits in with the agency's core mission."

"I view this type of assistance as plainly necessary to achieve the policy of the state," she said. The public defender statute spells out that the agency is charged with "cooperating with professional groups ... to rehabilitate and correct individuals charged and convicted of crime."

But a majority of the three-member Office of the Public Defender Board of Trustees, which is appointed by the governor, disagreed. Two members of the board decided Forster had led public defenders too far afield of their constitutional duty to represent poor people who have been arrested.

"The effort to rehabilitate and life-assist individuals charged and convicted with crimes is not a duty or responsibility" of public defenders, board Chairman T. Wray McCurdy wrote in a letter sent to Forster in July.

Forster was terminated Aug. 21 because she would not comply with the oversight board's demands to streamline the agency by disbanding units like Finegar's. The board also wanted to dissolve a capital defense unit and a juvenile services watchdog group. Forster was also told to "justify which, if any, social workers are necessary."

In an e-mail to her staff the day she was fired, Forster wrote that such changes would "destroy all progress made by the agency over the past 10 years."

As the trustees search for Forster's replacement, public defenders wonder how drastically their jobs will change in the months to come. The interim chief, Elizabeth Julian, who led the Baltimore division of the agency, took the job under the condition she not have to implement the board's demands.

Created by the state legislature in 1971, the public defender's office has had only three leaders. Forster's predecessor, Stephen E. Harris, held the top job from 1990 to 2004. He and many other academics are convinced Forster had the right approach.

"I really think this is the beginning of the end of a wonderful, top-ranked office," Harris, now director of the litigation skills center at the University of Baltimore law school, said in an interview last week. "It's the people we represent who are going to suffer."

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