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Committee votes to boost funding for Maine office overseeing attorneys for low-income defendants

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.

Members of a legislative committee have voted unanimously to give an additional $6 million to the state agency that provides attorneys to low-income criminal defendants.

Gov. Janet Mills has proposed setting aside an additional $1 million this fiscal year for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. The commission has struggled in recent years to find enough private attorneys willing to represent defendants who can't afford to hire their own lawyer. But the Judiciary Committee voted 14-0 on Thursday to increase that figure to $6 million.

That recommendation will now go to the legislative committee that is crafting a supplemental budget covering the next five months.

There are concerns that Maine is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide low-income defendants with attorneys. The commission has asked for legislative authorization to increase the hourly reimbursement rate for participating attorneys from $80 to $150 an hour.

“This is a serious problem that has been made worse by the poor economic climate we are experiencing,” Judiciary Committee member Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, said in a statement. “What good are the protections afforded by our laws and Constitution if people cannot assert their rights and have them adjudicated?”

Maine is the only state that, until a few months ago, relied entirely on private attorneys for its indigent defense system. Lawmakers provided funding to hire state-employed five public defenders last year.

While those positions had been filled, the lead public defender resigned last week after just a month on the job. Attorney Seth Levy did not provide a reason for his resignation.