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A wake-up call for Maryland's criminal justice system [Letter]

11:00 AM EST, January 19, 2014

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Judge Alfred Nance's recent order requiring the assistance of legal counsel to defendants at pre-trial hearings hopefully will serve as a wake-up call for Maryland's criminal justice system ("Court order could push state to send lawyers to bail hearings," Jan. 15).

Plaintiffs' attorney Michael Schatzhow called it correctly when he asserts that the courts, local and state funding entities and the entire legal community need to look ahead at what's around the corner.

The issue of re-expanding rights to representation has been bubbling up for the past year or two in Maryland. The broader issue of equal access to the courts has been the strategic focus of our state's courts since Chief Judge Robert M. Bell's tenure.

How does justice work equally when Johnny Bluebook receives the benefit of adequate legal representation at his bail review but Jaquetta Smith can't rely on her public defender's presence? Who do you think spends more time in pre-trial detention? And what are the real costs to society of locking up only those who cannot afford a lawyer?

Our fiscally conservative state legislators have spent the past 10 years or so crunching and re-crunching the numbers to cover dwindling public income. That resulted in decreased state funding for courts, public defenders and organizations that provide legal services to the poor.

Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues certainly never intended that the Bill of Rights apply only to the top 1.5 percent of the population who can pay for an attorney. When one's liberty is at stake, a lawyer's presence is critical.

As a former assistant state court administrator in Maryland and the District of Columbia, I can attest to the thoughtfulness and zeal for justice of many in the criminal justice system. The Maryland courts have an Access to Justice Commission and an office to help ensure legal representation. And many of our sitting trial judges have worked as public defenders and assistant state's attorneys and know first-hand the uphill battle people who aren't wealthy face in our justice system.

This case is a call to the entire system to quickly find a solution that provides justice for all.

Ellen Marshall, Baltimore

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