Nancy S. Forster, newly appointed public defender for Maryland, hears it at parties all the time. Even from her brother. "How could you?"

How could you waste so much time and taxpayer money defending those criminals?

Her response is as reasoned as it is impassioned: Because the words in the U.S. Constitution and the phrase "justice for all" really need to mean something. Then there's that central tenet of American jurisprudence that someone is presumed innocent until proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be otherwise.

Besides, she has always been drawn to defending the underdog.

"We are critical to the justice system, just to make the system run fairly," she said recently from her new office in Baltimore.

Pictures were stacked against the walls on the floor. But one shelf behind her desk was adorned with family photos and the drawings of her two children, Chloe, soon to be 12, and Jackson, 6.

Forster, 45, was born in Baltimore, the youngest of five children. Her father died when she was 6. Relatives wanted to split the family up to help her mother, but her mother refused to even listen. Instead, she got a job as a secretary, working for years in a hospital.

"I saw her struggle a lot to keep the family together," Forster said. "I have such admiration for her. I think that's where I get my work ethic from. A lot of people call me a workaholic, but I really want my daughter and son to see their mother as a working mother. It's really important to me."

After attending Catholic schools in Baltimore, the University of Maryland in College Park and law school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, she worked as a law clerk for the public defender's office in 1984. She never left.

"I've always had empathy for the underdog, having been the underdog at times growing up," she said. "It was in little ways. When you don't have enough money -- who will be your friend and who won't because of what you have."

She remembers her first case as a public defender. Sean Woodson, then 19, was charged with killing a Baltimore police officer. Prosecutors wanted the death penalty. When the death sentence came down from the judge, it hit her hard: "I just lost it. I remember standing right next to him. Thinking, this is unbelievable for me to hear that you're 19 and the state wants to put you to death."

A few years later, during a retrial, Woodson was convicted of second-degree murder with no chance of receiving the death penalty. In the public defender's world, that was a major victory. "The emotion at that sentencing was so different. Elation. Joy. It took so much out of me to do that," Forster said.

The "stigma" that Forster remembers from that case -- that indigent criminals are probably guilty and that public defenders are using taxpayer money to get them back out on the streets -- has led to what Forster and other lawyers call a crisis in the public defender system across the country.

Report after report, by the U.S. Justice Department and the American Bar Association, among others, has shown that offices of public defense are often woefully underfunded and the lawyers overloaded with cases. The result is that defendants can wait months in jail to meet with court-appointed lawyers. Or that those with public defenders spend a longer time in prison than those with private lawyers.

In her years as deputy public defender, Forster sought to help remedy the situation in Maryland. She made the rounds to legislators to ask for more money and more lawyers. They wanted statistics. She had only the weary stories of burned-out defenders.

So she and former public defender Stephen E. Harris came up with a way to track their caseloads. With the help of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, they were able to compare Maryland with similar jurisdictions. They found that Maryland was at the bottom of the list in pay and caseloads.

"It showed how completely out of whack our system was. And believe me, nobody benefits when caseloads are so extraordinarily high. Innocent people may be sitting in jail. Trial lawyers have to do triage. You may miss something on appeal," she said.

Forster put together a PowerPoint presentation and gave it to anyone who would listen. The result: Lawmakers agreed to fund 212 new positions, 90 of which are support positions and the rest lawyers, over three years. On July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, the Office of Public Defender will receive its second influx of people.

Another thorn was pay: In 2001, prosecutors working for state's attorneys received a two-grade pay increase, the public defenders none. That, Forster said, was not only "demoralizing" but led to an exodus of lawyers from her office and into the prosecutor's.

This legislative session, Forster and Harris were able to convince lawmakers that prosecutors and defenders were equally vital parts of the state justice system. Public defenders will receive a two-grade pay increase July 1.

Now that Forster has been appointed to the top job -- she is only the third public defender since the office was created in 1971 and the first woman -- her priority will be continuing to reduce caseloads. She knows from experience about heavy caseloads. She worked her way up through the public defender's appellate division. She tried to handle appeals for eight or nine cases a month, sometimes 108 cases a year. The ABA guidelines recommend no more than 25 appeals cases a year.

Another independent study found that as many as 50 percent of all juvenile offenders were waiving their rights to an attorney in hearings before judges, again one of the worst records in the country. "Maryland's poor children don't have equal access to counsel," the ABA's Juvenile Justice Center report concluded.

After the report, the legislature and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration made it a priority to change the law. Now, no juvenile can waive the right to counsel without having an attorney present.