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Commission To Consider Changes To Free Legal Representation For Low-Income Mainers

The state commission that provides private attorneys for accused Mainers who can’t afford them says it will take its time in considering the recommendations of a critical report issued last spring.

In its first meeting with all-new members, the Maine Indigent Legal Services Commission says it will take a fresh look at how the state system fulfills its obligation to provide free legal representation for low-income Mainers accused of a crime.

“There is this notion that spending is out of control, so we have to address that. And we have to address this big budget item in government in constitutionally required counsel,” says former state lawmaker Josh Tardy, who chairs the commission.

Commission members say they’ll review the recommendations of the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, which has warned that Maine cannot guarantee effective representation in each and every case, as required by the Constitution. The group was critical of the state’s system for its use of private attorneys, rather than public defenders.

Commission members say they expect to make recommendations to the Legislature that include hiring more staff to properly oversee the more than 600 lawyers that are eligible to participate in the state system.

Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, told the Commission their charge is more than just financial oversight.

“I didn’t hear very much specific at all today about what the commission is doing to make sure that lawyers have the tools and training and resources they need to provide effective assistance, what the commission is doing to identify lawyers who are not competent,” he says.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.