By Natasha M. Dartigue
The writer is the public defender for the state of Maryland.
This week, the Maryland General Assembly will consider the budget proposed by Gov. Wes Moore (D) for my agency, the Office of the Public Defender. The funding provided to OPD is an important component of public safety in Maryland. We are past due to support proactive safety measures that invest in communities and improve wellbeing.
Public safety is often equated with a harsh ‘law and order’ approach of increased policing and lengthy prison sentences. However, building and strengthening agencies that are dedicated to protecting communities and defending individual rights, like the Office of the Public Defender, is critical to creating effective public safety solutions. The mass incarceration of residents — many of whom return home to fractured family support, unemployment, and instable housing — does not improve safety nor address the underlying substance abuse, mental health, and poverty issues that underlie the bulk of justice engagement.
Public safety also requires a criminal justice system that is fair, equitable, and accountable. Data on arrests, prosecution and sentencing consistently show shocking racial disparities, which are intertwined with economic disparities. We see these disparities in our practice, and we call out the inequities that harm our clients and fuel distrust of the system.
Public integrity issues — such as police and prosecutorial misconduct — are also uniquely monitored by public defenders. We have played a vital role in identifying corruption and abuse in every corner of the state and are often the only resource for those who have been its victims. We must invest in the oversight provided by defense attorneys to the same extent that we support the police, prosecutors, and judges whose authority creates the risks of overreach and abuse.
The work of a public defender requires the best and the brightest of the Maryland bar — and our attorneys, social workers, core staff, and contracted professionals are second to none in their dedication, abilities, and work ethic. Beyond the day-to-day victories of ensuring that individuals can return home to their jobs and families, and often connecting them with life-saving services and support, we have been at the forefront of exposing and responding to systemic issues in Maryland’s criminal system. As counsel to the majority of defendants across the state, we are the foremost experts on criminal practice and its impact on individuals and communities.
Despite our victories, we struggle to meet the needs of our clients and the state. Over the past two decades, OPD has suffered from stagnant salaries and extreme budget cuts. This has impaired our ability to hire, retain staff, and best serve our diverse communities. While Maryland’s investment in defense services has shrunk, it has expanded police technology, added more judgeships, and established new crimes and types of proceedings. We have consistently been required to do more with less.
Redefining public safety requires finding alternatives to policing that truly keep individuals safe and end racial injustice. We must create a public safety structure that encompasses accountability to community stakeholders and engages those most impacted within the solutions. This requires investing in defense services that are at least on par with investments in law enforcement, prosecution, and the judiciary.
There is no greater power that the government holds than to take away someone’s liberty. Public defenders are the protectors of liberty for individuals and communities in the justice system. Supporting OPD promotes equity and serves to protect all Marylanders in a manner that creates communities that truly thrive and ensures that individuals can live in dignity.