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Not every public defender office is struggling with a crisis. Case in point: the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, where the number of employees in the city of Baltimore recently increased by about 25%. “We have been very fortunate that we had a lot of support from our funders, which is the General Assembly,” said Patricia Chappell, the office’s counsel for strategic planning and policy. “It’s really been very spectacular actually.” The statewide office recently finished hiring 119 attorneys as part of an initiative that started four years ago and aims to reduce attorneys’ caseloads. The office now employs 520 attorneys whose salaries start at $50,893 and go up to $113,000, Chappell said. Baltimore now employs 179 lawyers in its public defender’s office. They carry an average caseload of 225 felonies and misdemeanors, and the hope is to bring that number down to 175, Chappell said. The average caseload for juvenile cases has already been reduced thanks to the new hires and is now about 190, only eight cases more than the goal of 182 said, Chappell said. The power of lobbying Chappell said she believes the office boosted its funding because it worked closely with the National Center for State Courts to analyze its actual and desired caseloads, carefully documented its needs, lobbied many in the criminal justice system and won support from the governor and others. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office also has had stable funding, which mostly comes from the city, said Valerie Bivens, a spokeswoman for the office. “We came close a couple of years ago to losing some attorneys who were funded by grants that were about to expire, and we needed the city to increase general funds and we received that funding,” Bivens said. The office has 424 staff, including 223 attorneys whose salaries range from $49,775 to $105,000, Bivens said. In addition to Maryland, several other states have significantly improved their public defender systems in recent years, including Massachusetts, Montana and North Carolina, said Malia Brink, indigent defense counsel with the Washington-based National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. North Carolina in 2000 created the Office of Indigent Defense Services and its 13-member governing body, which assumed a number of responsibilities for the public defender system, such as developing training, qualification and performance standards for indigent persons’ legal services. A number of other steps were taken, such as expansion of the Office of the Capital Defender, creation of new regional capital defender offices and several new district public defender offices. Massachusetts also took a number of steps in recent years to improve its public defense system, such as increasing court-appointed lawyers’ pay, which were among the lowest in the nation. And in Montana, the Montana Public Defender Act passed in 2005, creating a statewide public defender system. In Virginia, the General Assembly recently passed a bill that would allow judges to wave caps on how much court-appointed lawyers can make and budged an additional $8 million this month to pay for them. In many places, it is difficult to compare funding for public defenders and prosecutors’ offices because of varying funding mechanisms and jurisdictions. For example, one city may have a public defender system funded by the state and a district attorney’s office funded by the county. Sometimes, cases originating in busy offices are diverted to other areas, making it difficult to track caseloads. Methods of representation also vary greatly as lawyers in some offices represent clients from start to finish while others only handle parts of a case. Lasting tremors In San Jose, at least the salary comparisons are easy as it is one of the few places where public defenders and district attorneys are both unionized and start at $90,400. Both are funded by Santa Clara County. The county’s public defender office has had to make cuts since 2002, and has had to eliminate 14 attorneys, as well as five investigators and additional support staff, said Nancy Brewer, the assistant public defender. But while many public defender offices attribute the cuts to lack of understanding about the necessity for public defense, Brewer said the cuts are purely the result of a county suffering from Silicon Valley’s dot.com bust. “I think that Santa Clara County has done an excellent job of trying to establish and maintain the highest quality indigent defense service,” Brewer said.

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