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Maine ACLU says number of un-represented criminal defendants has 'skyrocketed'

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.

The ACLU of Maine said Tuesday that the number of low-income defendants who are lingering in jail without attorneys has "skyrocketed" in recent months.

According to its analysis of data from the state, the ACLU said the number defendants in Maine who have been "denied their right to an attorney" increased nearly 500% between November and May.

The organization sued the state two years ago, claiming Maine was violating the Sixth Amendment constitutional rights of low-income or indigent defendants by failing to provide them with attorneys. That case is now headed for trial after a judge rejected two attempts between the ACLU and the state to settle the lawsuit.

ACLU chief counsel Zachary Heiden said in an interview on Tuesday that having accurate information will be key to navigating out of what even the state's chief justice describes as a "constitutional crisis."

But Heiden pointed out that 633 people were without attorneys this week alone and 373 people have been waiting for an attorney for more than a month. And he said that was evidence that the problem is getting worse, not better.

"We have hundreds of people in this state today waiting for lawyers," Heiden said. "That's unacceptable, it is unconstitutional and something has to be done about it."
Officials from the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services — which was recently renamed from the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services — did not have an immediate response to the ACLU's report. But the commission is hiring additional public defenders and planning to open more offices with an infusion of additional funding from the state.

Until recently, Maine was the only state in the nation to rely entirely on private attorneys willing to represent low-income criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

But the number of attorneys willing to work with the commission plummeted. And while lawmakers have more than doubled the hourly reimbursement rates paid to participating attorneys, the ranks of private attorneys willing to take on indigent cases is still far below levels needed to address a massive case backlog combined with the steady flow of new cases.

The ACLU said the issue is not felt uniformly throughout the state. Rural areas have been harder hit by the lack of defense attorneys. And Heiden pointed out that more than one-third of the 373 people who waited a month or more for an attorney were from Penobscot County, which accounts for just 11% of the state's population.

While he said expanding the number of public defenders will help over the long-term, he described the current situation as an immediate crisis.

"There simply aren't enough attorneys for the number of the cases that the state of Maine is prosecuting," Heiden said. "Prosecutors in the state of Maine are bringing more cases than the system can handle, more cases than the courts can handle and more cases than the defense counsel can handle. And that's just not going to work within the existing resources that have been allotted to the state."