The state oversight board that governs Maryland's public defender's office may be able to avoid answering questions about its sudden firing of the agency's head, Nancy S. Forster, by hiding behind the state law protecting personnel decisions from public disclosure. But that does not absolve it of the duty to inform the public about its intentions for a vital agency that ensures the fairness and equity of our criminal justice system.
The only hints we have about what led two of the three board members to fire Ms. Forster come from a memo written by Ms. Forster listing changes she says they wanted in the department, including the disbanding of the capital defense and juvenile protection departments of the office; closing a community defenders operation; outsourcing Child in Need of Assistance representation to private attorneys; and firing the Baltimore County public defender, Thelma Triplin. If, in fact, the board wants those changes made, members need to say so and explain why.
A July 2 letter from board Chairman T. Wray McCurdy indicates dissatisfaction with the rate of growth in the office and its focus on assisting clients beyond their immediate legal needs. If this heralds a major shift in focus for the agency, the oversight board should explain its wishes in public so they can be properly debated.
We wonder, in particular, why the board is apparently insisting on disbanding the agency's juvenile protection department. A 2003 assessment by the Maryland Bar Association found that many juveniles were subject to abuse and neglect in state facilities after their cases were adjudicated and that they lacked access to any form of post-disposition representation.
Ms. Forster created a small juvenile protection unit of four attorneys, a paralegal and a social worker to monitor the conditions under which youthful offenders were held while in the custody of the Juvenile Services Department. The unit was instrumental in exposing abuses at the now-closed Bowling Brook Preparatory School for juvenile offenders, a private facility near Westminster where a 17-year-old died in 2007 while being restrained by corrections officers.
We're also puzzled by the oversight board's apparent wish to shut down the specialized unit for capital offenses. Defendants facing the possibility of execution require representation by experienced attorneys who have mastered the intricacies of death penalty cases. Though recent restrictions in Maryland's death penalty law may result in fewer such cases being brought, representing clients accused of capital offenses will remain a highly specialized and demanding vocation that the public defender's office must adequately staff and prepare for.
There are any number of other potential changes signaled by the board's dismissal of Ms. Forster for which the public deserves an explanation, such as disbanding the neighborhood defenders department that helps offenders rehabilitate themselves by making referrals to G.E.D. classes, job training counseling and substance abuse treatment. The goal of these efforts is connecting clients to services that will help them stay out of trouble so they don't come back into the criminal justice system. What's so wrong with that?
The members of the oversight board who voted to fire Ms. Forster may think none of these functions of the agency are necessary or affordable, and they may have good reasons to support their view. But in that case, they should explain publicly what the alternatives are and why they would be any better.