MD Firing Shows Public Defender Identity Crisis


With the promise of drug and mental health treatment instead of hard time, a Maryland woman pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter after her daugher, 2, died of a fatal dose of methadone. She failed out of the program, and is serving 10 years in prison. The Baltimore Sun reports that her attorney, public defender Maureen Rowland, remains haunted by the result. Her client’s right to a fair trial was overshadowed, she believes, by her agency’s bent toward social work. “Really, what good did I do her?” asked Rowland. “It showed me how misguided it is to get too involved in trying to help someone.”

The case illustrates an identity crisis facing the Maryland Office of the Public Defender – a struggle highlighted by the firing two weeks ago of director Nancy Forster. Should the agency’s 500 attorneys and hundreds of support staff focus solely on legal duties, or strive for loftier goals, such as reducing crime and rehabilitating criminals? Forster was considered one of the country’s most socially progressive public defenders, but her oversight board wanted a more streamlined approach, a view given new urgency by the shrinking state budget. Forster, a 25-year veteran of the agency and its leader for five years, told the Sun that helping clients rebuild their lives so that they don’t commit new crimes “fits in with the agency’s core mission.” Two members of a state board decided Forster had led public defenders too far afield of their constitutional duty to represent poor people who have been arrested.

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