December 4, 2009

Public defender’s office continues to overspend its budget

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Maryland Public Defender’s Office overspent its budget budget in five of the last eight years, using “unrealistic amounts” to meet targets set by the state budget office, legislative auditors found.

Caseloads for more than 500 attorneys the state agency employs also vary widely, auditors found. The number of cases handled by attorneys in Baltimore City declined as rates rose for public defenders in rural and suburban area such as Baltimore County.

Despite consistent problems that caused the agency to overspend its $88 million budget by almost $3 million in fiscal 2009, auditors found that the office is relatively efficient.

“Maryland’s public defender operation was generally less expensive per case than six other states that operated centralized public defender agencies similar to Maryland,” the report reads.

The office has been in turmoil recently, after its three-member Board of Trustees fired director Nancy Forster. There had been disagreement over the direction of the agency in assisting its indigent clients with the social problems that brought them into court, but some of the trustee’s complaints related to spending as well.

The acting public defender, Elizabeth Julian, generally agreed with most of the auditors findings, and said the agency would take corrective action, or had already done so. But she was not terribly hopeful for the future.

“Given the current state of the economy and continuing shortfalls in OPD’s operational funding requirements, it is uncertain when the agency’s funding dilemma will be resolved,” she said in a letter responding to the audit.

The public defenders handle cases for people who cannot afford an attorney. This includes poor defendants accused of crimes, but also inmates, those confined to mental institutions, and juveniles and their guardians in need of protective services.

The auditors, who work for the General Assembly, said that in many cases, the office’s “budget problems can be traced to differences between its determination of its funding needs to accomplish its missions and the targets set by the Department of Budget and Management.”

While the public defender’s agency was trying to budget on the basis of the number of cases it expected, state budget officials were telling them to spend less. This led the office “to include unrealistic amounts in order to meet budget targets,” according to the report.

In at least two budget years, the budget department refused the OPD’s requests to go over its targeted bottom line.

From 2002 to 2008, the Office of Public Defender added 145 attorneys, yet it was still not meeting its targets for caseloads in some areas of the state recommended by a 2005 study. Due to budget cuts over the last three years, OPD has lost 23 attorney positions.

In Baltimore City and suburban counties, where there are enough cases to warrant specialization based the kind of courts or cases, public defenders are supposed to handle about 150 cases each year. But the defense attorneys handled far more than that everywhere but in Montgomery County, where they average about 123 per year, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.

The highest caseloads were in Baltimore County, where the lawyers handled an average of 250 cases or more per year.

Caseloads are typically higher in rural areas, where attorneys handle all kinds of cases in both District and Circuit courts. In rural Maryland, public defenders are supposed to handle about 200 cases a year, a standard largely met except on the Upper Shore.

In Cecil County, for example, public defenders handled 275 or more cases per year. The lowest caseloads in the state were in Garrett and Allegany Counties were attorneys handle only about 120 cases per year.

The OPD also spends about $7 million per year hiring expert witnesses and private attorneys. Those attorneys represent clients in situations where there are two or more defendants up on the same charges, which presents a potential conflict of interest for public defenders.

Many states employ far more private attorneys for most indigents, and only seven states have a statewide office to coordinate defense of these clients.

Of those seven states, Maryland has the lowest cost per case, at $443. Other states have higher costs because they use more private attorneys. Massachusetts has the highest cost per case, at $724.