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Maine to add two more public defender offices

People wait outside the Biddeford District Court to make their initial court appearances.
Gabe Souza
Maine Monitor
People wait outside the Biddeford District Court to make their initial court appearances.

Maine will add two new public defender offices under a bill that passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday.

Until recently, Maine was the only state in the nation that relied entirely on private attorneys willing to represent defendants who could not afford a lawyer. But the number of attorneys willing to take case through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has plummeted in recent years. That trend, combined with a severe backlog of court cases, has led to a situation where some criminal defendants are lingering jail without representation.

Lawmakers have previously funded more than a dozen public defender positions and an office in Augusta. The bill quickly signed into law by Mills on Thursday will create two new offices to serve Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. It will also increase the number of public defenders from 15 to 25.

“This legislation creates new public defender positions across communities in rural Maine and advances my commitment to improving the delivery of legal services to low-income people to ensure their Constitutional right to counsel,” Mills, a former prosecutor and attorney general, said in a statement. "The right to counsel is one that I deeply value and have personally delivered myself, having represented low-income clients many times during my own legal career. I thank the Legislature for passing this bill, which is consistent with my budget proposal, in such a timely manner.”

The bill, LD 653, also changes the name of the Commission on Indigent Legal Services to the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services. Bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said the new name better reflects the work of the agency.

"The people of Maine, when we advocate for this, they will know what their money is going to. And that's why I thought it was so important to change the name. They should understand because they will get behind it when they understand what it is.".}

The ACLU of Maine filed a class-action lawsuit last year, claiming the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide competent defense attorneys to defendants. The ACLU estimated on Thursday that there are still 500 indigent defendants waiting for appointments with attorneys across the state.


“The current system denies countless people their Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel,” Zach Heiden, chief counsel of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement. "For years, Maine has relied entirely on private attorneys to meet its public constitutional obligations, but finally that is starting to change. LD 653 is a significant step forward for ensuring people in Maine have effective counsel."