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The indigent defense system sought a funding boost from the supplemental budget. It didn't get it

The Maine State House is seen Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The Maine State House is seen Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

One agency that did not receive a boost from the governor's $1.2 billion supplemental budget was Maine's Commission on Indigent Legal Services. The funding snub has rekindled questions for some over the future of Maine's embattled public defense system.

The commission was seeking more than $9 million to bolster services it provides, but the final spending bill was signed without additional funding. Maine does not have public defender's office. Instead, the commission contracts with private attorneys to provide constitutionally mandated legal counsel to the accused- but the system has come under fire in at least two recent reports and a class action civil rights lawsuit.

"It would be disappointing to me not to continue to make progress, because the system is at real risk," said Justin Andrus, who has been the director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services since last year.

He says the commission has worked to fix problems highlighted in a 2020 government watchdog report — problems such as the need for more training and better billing practices by attorneys. More funding, he says, would support those improvements. The state is legally bound to provide defense services, but Andrus says getting lawyers to do the job has gotten harder in just the last three years. Many have dropped out or aged out of the pool.

"We had lost 47% of our capacity to staff cases. During that same period, we saw the number of assignments our attorneys were responsible for reaching all time highs of over 28,000 cases per year. We're on track for that again," Andrus says.

Meanwhile, a backlog of cases continues to grow.

Andrus says the commission was seeking funds for research services and training, piloting a public defenders' office in Kennebec and Somerset Counties, a rural defense team, and offering a rate increase for attorneys from $80 per hour to $100 per hour.

A spokesperson from House Speaker Ryan Fecteau's office responded in an email that lawmakers "increased access to justice" last year by boosting the pay reimbursements for attorneys from $60 to $80 per hour, and that more action on the MCILS proposals could still be taken through the Special Appropriations Table.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Maine last month filed a lawsuit against the MCILS for allegedly failing in its sixth amendment duty to provide competent legal defense services.