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Indigent legal commission proposes additional public defender offices across Maine

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.
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.

State lawmakers could be asked next year to significantly expand Maine's public defender system around the state as officials attempt to bolster the ranks of attorneys will to represent low-income defendants.

Until very recently, Maine was the only state in the nation that relied entirely on private attorneys willing to represent defendants who couldn't afford an attorney. Since last year, however, state lawmakers have authorized the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Service to hire more than a dozen full-time attorneys as part of a new public defender unit.

Now, the commission wants to ask lawmakers for an additional $8.9 million over two years to open six more public defender offices around the state. Commission members gave initial approval on Wednesday to the supplemental budget request, which will be taken up by the Legislature next year.

"We could have been more aggressive but we wanted to be realistic about the timeframe and the ask,” commission director Jim Billings told the members. “And a hybrid system where we are doing roughly a third of the work in-house to me makes sense."

Billings said about $3.2 million would go toward opening offices in Bangor and Aroostook County next year as well as to cover other personnel. His proposal calls for requesting an additional $5.7 million in fiscal year 2025 to open four additional office and hire staff in Cumberland/York counties, Hancock/Washington counties, Androscoggin/Franklin/Oxford counties and in the Midcoast region.

Billings said having a legislative commitment to continue and expand the program will send a signal to potential recruits for these hard-to-fill jobs.

"If Maine has a fledgling public defender system in place with set jobs, people will come, people who go to school here will stay in Maine and they will do this work," he said.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that criminal defendants have access to a speedy trial and an attorney. But Maine's pool of private attorneys will to take on cases has shrunk dramatically in recent years. And the ACLU of Maine filed suit last year alleging the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to low-income defendants.

A judge recently rejected a settlement agreement between the state and the Maine ACLU, forcing the two parties back to the negotiating table. Those talks are expected to resume soon and will last 30 days.

“The right to effective assistance of counsel is a constitutional guarantee, not a luxury for the rich,” ACLU spokesperson Samuel Crankshaw said in a statement. “We remain prepared to litigate if a settlement cannot be reached to ensure Maine meets its obligations under the Sixth Amendment."

Lawmakers hope the public defender system will help address those concerns and reduce a massive backlog of cases.

"I think we are still in the very early days of building a completely new public defense system in Maine. I do think that it is going well,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, an attorney who co-chairs the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

Carney was not able to attend Wednesday’s commission meeting but said she looks forward to learning more about Billings' proposed budget next year as part of her committee and the budget-writing committee’s review. In general, however, she supports the idea of building out the system in areas with the greatest shortages of defense attorneys.

"So I think if we can do that as a state, that would be the best way to meet our Sixth Amendment obligations and we'll have a system that is better able to cope with the current shortage of counsel than the current system,” Carney said.

The number of participating private attorneys has increased since last year due, in no small part, to the fact that lawmakers nearly doubled the hourly reimbursement rate from $80 to $150. Yet there remains a shortage of private attorneys in some parts of the state willing or able to take on criminal cases, raising concerns about constitutional violations.

A spokesperson for Gov. Janet Mills said she supported the increased reimbursement rate as well as the creation of the public defender unit in Maine. Ben Goodman said funding for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has increased by roughly $30 million over the previous biennium.

A former prosecutor and attorney general, Mills also proposed allocating millions of dollars to create additional trial court judgeships and hiring more staff to address the backlog of cases.

“The Governor looks forward to reviewing the proposal and is committed to continuing her work with the Legislature and the Court System to discuss what steps can be taken to strengthen our legal system and the delivery of justice to all Maine citizens,” Goodman said in a statement.