Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris says his office is being "emasculated" by budget cuts and warns that the state faces lawsuits if it attempts to cut legal services for the poor.
By summer, Harris says, he will have run out of money to hire outside lawyers in multiple defendant cases.
The public defender's office lost more than $1 million in state funding last November. The cut was part of a statewide belt-tightening because of a projected shortfall of more than $400 million in this year's budget.
Harris lobbied late last year and got a reprieve from statofficials, who agreed to restore $650,000 of the agency's funding to pay for expert witnesses and outside lawyers, known as panel lawyers.
But next year's budget provides only about $208,000 for panel lawyers for the entire year. The office of the public defender now spends about $220,000 for panel lawyers each month.
There are 26 vacancies in the office -- mostly support staff -- that the defender has no funds to fill.
In Annapolis on Wednesday, Harris told the House Subcommittee on Law Enforcement and Transportation that under the proposed budget he will out of money for panel lawyers by August.
"We have gone on without filling these vacancies in order to make up this deficit," he said. "This is a short-term fix. We cannot sustain this. We're cutting down our reliance on outside attorneys. We cannot do without those [vacant] positions. We are going to be emasculated."
"We don't have the money to do our constitutional mandate and we could be possibly a walking target for a federal lawsuit on ineffective assistance of counsel on a statewide basis," Harris added.
Several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions mandate that defendants charged with crimes potentially punishable by jail terms have a constitutional right to legal counsel.
Harris said his office recently tightened eligibility requirements of clients. People who do not have dependents can earn no more than $150 per week to qualify for the service.
The public defender warned that the budget woes could lead to some cases being delayed and, eventually, dismissed because of speedy trial requirements.
"Once we won't have the ability to hire outside conflict attorneys, everything else is going to fall," Harris told the subcommittee. "It's going to be like a house of cards."