Historically, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender has been chronically underfunded, so it’s no surprise that our office needs more staff. But seeing the numbers laid out recently in a Baltimore Banner article is alarming.

The state’s current solution of outsourcing our work to private attorneys, investigators and social workers is costing Maryland taxpayers millions of dollars while doing nothing to fill the hundreds of vacancies within our agency. Outsourcing also has a detrimental effect on our clients and their families, who deserve quality representation and continuity of care. While staffing has been a primary issue for us as a union, we still do not see any urgency from our agency to address these staffing issues.

I’ve worked in Baltimore as a trial attorney in the Office of the Public Defender for nearly 30 years. While we have always struggled with large caseloads, the issues have been exacerbated since the pandemic. Loss of personnel and the state’s inability, and sometimes unwillingness, to fill the vacancies left behind has decimated our offices. To keep up with this workload, according to national workload standards, Baltimore alone would need to increase the attorneys on staff exponentially. Yet, during the past five years, staff in the Baltimore City Felony Trial Division alone has shrunk to a third of what it once was.

The governor has pledged to fill state vacancies, but it’s vital that we fill these vacancies with full-time, permanent employees — not continue to outsource casework. By hiring contractors, we deny new employees the same benefits that we as full-time employees receive and deny our clients the attention, care and dedication they deserve.

Marci Tarrant Johnson is president of the Maryland Defenders Union (AFSCME Local 423).