Overwhelmed public defenders

Public defenders offices can't keep up with the state's growing number of indigent clients.

In the justice system, criminal defendants are entitled to be represented by a lawyer, and if they can't afford to hire an attorney the government must provide one. That is an enduring principle of American jurisprudence, but increasingly it's one that states find hard to live up to. In Maryland, local public defender's offices are so swamped with indigent clients, there literally aren't enough lawyers to go around. When that happens their clients' rights to due process are violated and justice is denied.

As The Sun's Jesse Coburn reported last week, public defenders in Maryland are assigned hundreds of new cases every year — far too many for them to give each one the attention it deserves. Experts say the public defender's offices can't possibly handle them all and still provide effective legal representation. Even though the state sets limits on the maximum number cases those lawyers can take and still be expected to represent clients competently, the limits are routinely exceeded. Currently 380 public defenders across the state are managing caseloads it normally would take more than 530 lawyers to represent properly.

As a result, even in cases involving serious crimes, those lawyers can't give their clients' cases the careful attention they require. Many defendants meet their court-appointed attorneys for the first time only a few minutes before their trials are scheduled to begin. Mr. Coburn cites the case of an Annapolis public defender whose job routinely required him to represent more than 1,200 clients a year. Under such circumstances, too often there's little time to interview witnesses, take depositions, plan legal strategy or thoroughly research judicial precedent. The clients and their attorneys simply have to take their chances flying by the seat of their pants.

And while it's true that prosecutors face some of the same manpower challenges as attorneys in the public defender's offices, they at least can pick and choose to some degree which cases to pursue and how to charge them. Public defenders, by contrast, have to take whatever cases they are assigned no matter how serious the charges are or how time-consuming the task of crafting an adequate defense turns out to be.

It's a situation that inevitably penalizes poor defendants, whose best hope of regaining their freedom too often is to plead guilty to some lesser charge carrying a lighter penalty, even if they haven't committed any crime at all. Better that, they figure, than attempt a robust defense with ineffective counsel. But the result can hardly be called justice.

That is how our prisons have become stuffed with people who don't need to be there and who cost the state millions of dollars a year to keep them fed and housed. And even that drain on society pales beside the much greater injustice of incarcerating thousands of people every year simply because they lack the resources to retain effective counsel and the state is unable to provide it for them, despite being required to do so by law.

No wonder indigent defendants feel the courts are stacked against them and that the system favors the affluent and well-connected. Over time, the disparities in access to competent legal representation, which are nowhere more evident than in the public defender's offices, serve to undermine public trust in the fairness and impartiality of the entire criminal justice system. That's not an outcome Maryland should countenance. The state must fulfill its obligation to respect the constitutional rights of all its citizens, and it can't do that until it musters the resources to provide competent legal representation for defendants who can't afford a lawyer when they show up for their day in court.

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