Accountability Office: System That Provides Legal Services To Low-Income Mainers Understaffed

Nov 9, 2020

A review of the agency that runs Maine’s indigent legal services system says it is understaffed, and has not done an adequate job at managing the system’s finances.

Maine District Court In Portland
Credit COURTS.MAINE.GOV

In its review of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, found that the agency did not provide the oversight needed to ensure that low-income defendants get the quality legal representation guaranteed to them under the state constitution.

“The Commission on indigent legal services structure failed to provide adequate oversight of agency operation and of the commission’s purpose to efficiently provide high-quality legal representation to indigent clients,” says Danielle Fox, director of OPEGA.

The report found that the agency is understaffed and inconsistent in how it audits its finances.

“There are no established policies and procedures governing expenditures and payments and expectations for billing practices also may not be effectively communicated to rostered attorneys,” Fox says.

Maine is the only state that uses private attorneys, rather than a system of public defenders, to provide legal services to low-income defendants who’ve been charged with crimes. Critics, supported by a number of independent studies, say it has failed to provide the quality of representation required under state and federal constitutions.

John Pelletier, who has run the commission since it was created in 2009, says it has always been understaffed.

“What we have been doing is spending every day doing what we had time to do to make the system function. And I believe that the system does function. If you ask prosecutors, I don’t think they will tell you the defense bar are a bunch of pushovers,” he says.

Pelletier announced last week that he is stepping down from the post next month, and state lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee say they want the new committee that takes office next month to swiftly review the findings, and continue to work on the problem.

Democratic Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford, who co-chairs the committee, says that if the system isn’t fixed, the state could be exposed to legal action.

“The implications are pretty severe down the road if we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing for people in court that require indigent legal services, and that really concerns me,” she says.

It’s expected that the new Government Oversight Committee will be named next month, hold hearings on the report and possibly develop legislation to reform the way Maine provides legal services to low-income defendants.