A new state audit says Maryland's public defender's office is failing to properly document whether its clients are poor enough to need its help.

The periodic review by the state's Office of Legislative Audits, released Thursday, also found the office is struggling with cost overruns and heavy workloads for attorneys, and needs to do more to put resources where they are most needed. Those findings and questions about client screenings have been raised in previous audits.

The state Office of the Public Defender provides legal representation to poor people charged with crimes. It has an annual budget of about $93 million and handles about 240,000 cases a year.

Paul B. DeWolfe Jr., the head of the office, took issue with the findings, saying his staff follows a nationally accepted method, which requires potential clients to attest to their lack of financial resources, and investigates what it believes to be borderline cases.

"We believe that we have a very credible qualification process," he said in an interview.

In a written response to the report, DeWolfe said neither this audit nor a separate internal review conducted before and during the audit period revealed that public defenders had taken on clients who could have afforded to hire a private lawyer. DeWolfe wrote that he would review the materials used to train staff in documenting client applications.

Regarding financial problems, the audit found that from 2011 to 2013, the office had overruns of $4.6 million, and "needs to take actions to help ensure expenditures do not exceed its appropriations," the auditors wrote.

Auditors also found the office's lawyers were overworked. In 2012, attorneys who handle serious cases in the state's circuit courts were handling 26 percent more cases than recommended by an internal target. For lawyers handling cases in lower-level district courts, the rate was 19 percent above the target, according to the audit.

Their workloads worsened from five years ago, but lawyers in the juvenile court system had caseloads below the target rates for the same period.

DeWolfe said there are two ways to reduce the caseloads: "One is to have fewer cases, but we don't have control over that. The other would be to hire additional attorneys."

In his response to the auditors, he wrote that the second option is one for which funding "has been heretofore unavailable."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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