In an effort to rein in caseloads, improve working condition and have a greater voice in the criminal justice system, the public defenders of Maryland are unionizing.
They are joining the largest union for state government employees, The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or AFSCME, the union announced Tuesday.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender has more than 700 employees ranging from lawyers to social workers. The deadly coronavirus outbreak has caused concerns among those who felt left out of decisions to reopen the courts.
“The judicial system must be run as safely as possible for our clients and ourselves, and it must continue to function during the pandemic,” Public Defender Cynthia Christiani said in a statement provided by the union. “So far frontline workers have had no say in how to open courts safely while ensuring justice for our clients. We deserve to have a voice in how the work is done.”
In an interview, Christiani said she started work 15 years ago at district court in East Baltimore. The office had 26 attorneys back then. Today, they’re down to six. Those left face enormous caseloads, she said.
“It’s always this answer of: Do more with less. Do more with less. The numbers keep shrinking of attorneys and support staff,” she said.
Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe issued a statement saying he recognizes their concerns. The effort in Maryland follows similar campaigns to unionize by public defenders in Philadelphia, Connecticut and Los Angeles County in recent years.
“Our employees are dedicated advocates who fight for our clients every day. In these exceptionally challenging times, where there are widespread budget cuts and life-threatening risks from COVID, they are now fighting for themselves,” DeWolfe said. “We recognize the concerns and have been fighting for our staff everyday and are committed to their health and well-being.”
State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a former public defender, praised their effort.
“I’m all too familiar with the resource challenges and chronic underfunding OPD employees encounter in their jobs. Despite this, they continue to serve with honor to provide justice, liberty, and civil rights to marginalized Marylanders,” she said in the news release.
The employees framed the issue as one of fairness and equity rather than being about pay.
“Nobody works at the Office of the Public Defender to get rich. We do it because we care about justice. It’s unfair for Governor Hogan to balance the budget on the backs of state employees,” said Afrika Kwanna, an administrative aide in Anne Arundel County.
AFSCME is the largest public service union in Maryland with more than 28,000 members. The union president Patrick Moran welcomes the public defenders.
“They deserve to be compensated and treated fairly and to have a real say in their working conditions,” he said in the release.