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Right to counsel


It is a basic tenant of American law that people accused of crimes have right to a fair trial, and for over a generation the courts have interpreted that to mean that anyone too poor to hire a private lawyer is entitled to free legal counsel at state expense.

Thus it would be a serious matter, as a result of proposed budget cuts, if the Maryland public defender's office were unable to carry out its mission of representing indigent clients. The cuts, part of Governor Schaefer's plan to close an estimated $450 million budget gap, would reduce the budget of the public defender's office by about $589,000 next year. Maryland Public Defender Stephen E. Harris says that would cripple his office's ability to do its job.

The public defender hires outside lawyers in cases where the state must represent several defendants whose legal interests may conflict. Most such cases involve drugs, and their numbers have soared in recent years. Harris warns that if budget cuts are sustained, the courts could quickly become swamped with indigent defendants whose cases can't be processed simply because they lack legal counsel.

It's a warning that should be taken seriously. The courts are already dangerously overburdened, and almost certainly the result would be that the courts ended up dismissing many drug cases before they ever came to trial. And that means turning criminals back onto the streets. It is ludicrous to believe society would actually save money this way.

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