Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Editorial Advisory Board: Supporting the public defender’s office

Recently, the Association for the Public Defender of Maryland, the Maryland State Bar Association, and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender gathered to celebrate the MOPD’s first 50 years.

The Daily Record Editorial Board joins in this important acknowledgement of the critical role the MOPD plays in an equitable justice system, and congratulates Natasha Dartigue, who was named the Maryland public defender earlier this year.

Like many, several editorial board members were not aware of the delay between the decision in the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, establishing the right to counsel in criminal matters for indigent individuals, and the creation of the MOPD.  Gideon was decided in 1963, and it was nearly 10 years later when the MOPD opened its doors in 1972.

In the interim, two model programs were operated in Baltimore city and Montgomery County, with the Maryland legislature creating the MOPD in 1971.  The MOPD began with approximately 72 attorneys handling 16,000 cases in 17 locations, and today has grown to over 800 staff members, including more than 500 attorneys, working on more than 200,000 cases in 50 locations.

The MOPD should be recognized not only for the essential role it plays in the daily functioning of our criminal justice system, but also for its innovative programming and its judicial and legislative advocacy.

During the MOPD’s history, it has led efforts to establish a right to counsel at bail proceedings (DeWolfe v. Richmond), abolish the death penalty (Senate Bill 276 in 2013), and to reduce the reliance on cash bail (Maryland Court of Appeals Rules of Court in 2017).

Most recently, the MOPD participated in a lawsuit as an organizational plaintiff in the successful demand of the removal of the confederate Talbot Boys statute from the Talbot County Courthouse.

It also has added innovative programming, including partnering with the University of Baltimore School of Law to operate the Innocence Project Clinic. It most recently launched the Decarceration Initiative, which coordinates statewide representation of individuals who are eligible for sentencing reconsideration under the Juvenile Restoration Act, having served at least 20 years of a sentence imposed for a crime committed when they were a child.

The Juvenile Protection Division monitors the conditions of confinement of all MOPD juvenile clients committed to the care and custody of the Department of Juvenile Services, as well as monitoring safety and appropriateness of placements and timely implementation of court orders. MOPD also provides social work case management and peer support to address underlying barriers. It created the Community Engagement Reentry Project in 2020 to connect individuals returning from detention with services and resources including substance use and mental health treatment, employment and workforce development, GED and college planning, vital documents retrieval, food security, and housing.

Despite these accomplishments, the MOPD continues to struggle with manageable workloads for attorneys, and sufficient support staff. Even using the 2005 standards established by the National Center for State Courts, MOPD attorneys are carrying caseloads above that standard.  At the same time, trial preparation has dramatically increased with the advent of body cameras and other forms of e-discovery.

In nearly all Maryland jurisdictions, MOPD attorneys are representing clients in excess of even the out-of-date 2005 standard.

Of course the important work of the MOPD doesn’t just reside with the lawyers. The attorney/support staff ratio exceeds the 2005 standards for administrative staff and secretaries, paralegals and social workers.

According to the MOPD, the 2005 standards recommend a ratio of three attorneys for every clerk or secretary, MOPD has a ratio of 42, for paralegals the standard is 11:1 of attorneys to paralegal, the MOPD has a ratio of 18:1, and for the proper ratio of attorneys to social workers, there should be 51 social workers at MOPD, while the actual staffing is 26.

If we are to believe in a fair criminal justice system, then we must ensure that the MOPD has adequate funding and support to zealously advocate for Maryland’s indigent population who has been criminally accused.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Gary E. Bair

Andre M. Davis

Eric Easton

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Roland Harris

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Susan F. Martielli

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.