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Lawmakers approve taking step toward public defender's unit in Maine

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 Legislature's budget-writing committee voted Friday to spend more than $1 million to create a small public defender's office in Maine.

Maine is the only state that relies entirely on private lawyers rather than public defenders to represent people who are charged with crimes but can't afford an attorney. But the pool of lawyers willing to participate is shrinking, prompting warnings from leaders of the state-run program, known as the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, that it may soon not have enough attorneys to defend all of the lower-income individuals who require representation in the state.

The $1.2 million approved by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will be used to hire five public defenders who would work largely in rural areas, essentially supplementing the commission’s roster of private attorneys. The public defender unit would be mobile, with attorneys sent to different areas of the state where the need is greatest.

The money is part of $12 million in leftover funds that committee members divvied up on Friday, out of a pool of more than 240 bills seeking more than $1.2 billion in funding. The full House and Senate will take up the issue on Monday during what is slated to be the final day of the 2022 legislative session.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Maine filed suit, claiming that the state is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide adequate representation to low-income defendants. Meagan Sway, an attorney with the ACLU, said Friday that the small public defender’s office is a positive step but does not go far enough. Sway said the ACLU’s lawsuit will move forward.

"Unfortunately what the Legislature funded is not enough and it doesn't get Maine close to fulfilling its obligations under the constitution,” Sway told Maine Public. “So while we are grateful for this funding and we think that something is better than nothing, Maine is still going to be failing its Sixth Amendment obligations even after this happens."