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Proposed $17M for Maine's indigent defense system not enough to meet the need, commission says

Indigent Defense
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Wednesday, May 31, 2017, file photo, a court-appointed "lawyer of the day" explains a legal implication to a person charged with a crime at Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland, Maine.

The two-year budget proposal put forth by Gov. Janet Mills includes $17 million for Maine's indigent legal defense system, which would be used to hire 10 new public defenders for a total of 15 and boost pay for private attorneys.

The executive director of the state's commission on indigent legal services, Justin Andrus, says he's thrilled that Mills wants to invest further in the system. But he says it needs far more funding to ensure the constitutional right to an attorney.

Andrus says in the last 12 months, the system was called on to staff more than 20,000 cases. But only 60 attorneys are currently accepting assignments.

"What that means is that if we didn't dramatically expand the availability of counsel, all of our existing counsel would have to take 323 cases a year in order for the system to persist," he says.

The commission asked for $62 million last summer to fully meet the system's needs.