A storm has been brewing in Maryland regarding the recent firing of state Public Defender Nancy Forster, and the related attack on several defender programs that she championed, including the Northwest Defenders – A highly regarded public defender unit in Baltimore that in addition to providing zealous representation, is helping clients address the challenges of mental illness, addiction, and joblessness that can lead to continuing contact with the criminal justice system. The award wining staff at Northwest Defenders leverages the resources of the community by connecting clients with housing, treatment and employment programs, and with the help of area law students, helps clients expunge minor criminal records that have proven to be a persistent barrier to employment opportunities.
Back in July, Maryland’s 3 member Board of Trustees demanded that Public Defender Forster disband its capital crimes unit, juvenile defense unit, and the Northwest Defenders. In addition, the Board demanded that Forster justify which, “if any, social workers are necessary,” and demanded further action that would purportedly “refocus the defender’s mission away from a ”holistic approach" and toward “effective representation.”
When Forster refused to take the dictated actions, the Board fired her on August 21st. She is now pursuing legal claims against the Board. The fate of the defender units at issue remains unclear.
Forster’s firing has rankled many who see undue political interference with the management of a public defender’s office. The board’s stance that, ""[t]he effort to rehabilitate and life-assist individuals charged and convicted with crimes is not a duty or responsibility of the [office of the Public Defender]," has also sparked a debate as to the appropriate role of a public defender’s office. An article published in the September 6th edition of the Baltimore Sun, “Public Defender’s Identity Crisis,” queries whether it makes sense for a public defender’s office to adopt a community-based approach.
Police count on community-based institutions to help reduce crime. The Department of Justice has supported studies of strategies that engage state prosecutors and probation officials in the community. The judiciary, too, has long been active in developing drug and youth courts that can provide drug-treatment and other services as an alternative to incarceration.
On the defender side, the community oriented defender movement can have equivalent positive impact. The trustees hostility seems remarkably short sighted, particularly in these current times of budget crisis.
First, community oriented defenders provide zealous legal representation for their clients. But, by relying on social workers (and other professionals) to identify community based alternatives to confinement, and by developing relationships with community organizations to expand supports for clients, they can dramatically impact case outcomes.
Second, our nation’s economic crisis should compel greater support, not less, for defender problem-solving approaches that lead to cost savings to the state fisc as a result of the better life outcomes for clients and the attendant reductions in recidivism. A focus on up-front defense expenditures for social workers and expungement programs which fails to acknowledge the longer-term benefits of helping clients get on their feet and stay off the streets is woefully short-sighted.
Finally, any evaluation of community oriented defender services must be assessed against the backdrop of a criminal justice system that is broken. Maryland devoted nearly 8% of its general budget dollars on corrections spending in 2007, the 11th highest rate of corrections spending in the country. The state spent nearly as much on corrections as it did on higher education. Further, racial and ethnic disparities present at arrest, prosecution, and incarceration continue to plague the justice system.
Community oriented defenders that think beyond individual cases to give fuller consideration of the institutional forces affecting multiple clients are also particularly well positioned to hold the government accountable for failed policies, and to help devise solutions to systemic problems. Such defenders are proving themselves a valuable resource in communities across the country.
The interim chief of the Maryland defenders office, Elizabeth Julian, accepted her current appointment on the condition she not be required to implement the demands the Board made of her predecessor. Julian and any future chiefs must be relieved of the burden to take unreasonable actions that undercut the agency and its important work for the state. It is welcome news that Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland State Senate will be holding hearings to get to the bottom of the controversy.
Director, Community Oriented Defender Network
Since 2003 The Brennan Center has coordinated the Community Oriented Defender network, a coalition of public defenders around the country united by the view that the representation of individuals charged with crimes can be made more effective by a deep engagement of defenders with the communities in which their clients live.