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Maine Government Navel-Gazes as Indigent Defense System Burns.

Maine Government Navel-Gazes as Indigent Defense System Burns.

Posted by Ed Folsom, August 24, 2022.

To begin, Maine has no public defender’s office. Instead, Maine courts determine if a person is indigent and otherwise eligible for court-appointed counsel. The court assigns counsel to those who are eligible, from a list of attorneys  rostered by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to accept that type of case. The MCILS is responsible for ensuring that rostered attorneys meet certain standards and for paying the attorneys for work performed, among other things.

The Portland Press Herald reports today that only 186 attorneys are currently accepting court-appointed indigent defense cases from the MCILS. That’s down from the 224 attorneys who were accepting new cases as of July 5, as reported in a Maine Monitor story of that date. For perspective, the same Maine Monitor story reports that 410 attorneys were accepting new MCILS cases in May of 2019. This amounts to a 54.6% decline in the number of lawyers taking on new MCILS cases since May of 2019, and a 16.9% drop in just the last 8 weeks.

Why is this happening? Almost exactly one year ago I laid out some of the many reasons: here.  You’re welcome.

Today’s Press Herald also reports that there are 10 people currently locked-up pretrial in Aroostook County who are eligible for court-appointed attorneys for whom the courts are, so far, unable to find attorneys to represent them. The MCILS’s Executive Director, Justin Andrus, recently said he’s only aware of Aroostook County’s problem because he happened to be tipped-off to it back in April. At one point, 23 people were held in jail and eligible for court-appointed lawyers but had not been assigned a lawyer (so Aroostook County has made some improvement since then). Andrus says similar problems might exist elsewhere in Maine but he and the MCILS simply have no way to know.

Oh, and here’s a good one: In a last minute, bi-partisan deal reached by the Legislature in April, the Legislature came up with $966,000 to fund positions for Maine’s first 5 publicly-employed indigent defenders. The idea was for these public defenders to go where they are needed, to handle cases in places where there’s a shortage of private attorneys accepting court appointed cases — kind of like Aroostook County at the moment.  But at an MCILS meeting this past Monday, Andrus informed the Commissioners that he has made no progress since April in bringing public defenders on board. It doesn’t help that the Maine Bureau of Human Resources recently rejected Andrus’s proposal to pay the defenders (supervisor and underlings) a salary on par with District Attorneys and Assistant District Attorneys.

Surely, paying State employees on the defense side the same as their counterparts on the prosecution side would be ridiculous!

So, the State fiddles and diddles as its indigent defense system burns, at first slowly. But the ultimate conflagration holds promise to be spectacular.