Maine’s ACLU urges lawmakers to increase funding for indigenous legal defense

A representative from a group that is leading a class action lawsuit against the state is urging lawmakers to commit even more money to create public defender’s offices around the state.

The ACLU of Maine filed suit one year ago this week, claiming the state is failing in its constitutional obligation to provide attorneys to low-income criminal defendants. Since then, lawmakers created a small, public defender office to take cases in rural Maine. And the administration of Gov. Janet Mills has proposed expanding that office.

Zach Heiden, chief counsel for ACLU Maine, told lawmakers on two committees on Monday that’s progress and he also criticized the recent decision to increase the hourly reimbursement for private attorneys who take on clients through the Commission on Indigent Legal Services. Earlier, the outgoing executive director of the commission, Justin Andrus, told lawmakers that the higher reimbursement rate – from $80 to $150 an hour – has led to a significant jump in interest among private attorneys willing to take on independent cases.

But Heiden also said a hybrid system of private attorneys and public defenders should have been adopted years ago rather than its standing, until recently, as the only state in the country to rely entirely on private attorneys. And he said additional reforms – such as increased training and supervision as well as for statewide offices to handle appeals and post-conviction reviews – will cost money.

“These investments are, as you are no doubt aware, considerably more than the state is accustomed to spending on indigenous defense,” told members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee as well as the Judiciary Committee. “Please do not mistake them for luxury “This is the bare minimum of funding required to have a functioning independent defense system in this state and by extension a functioning criminal legal system in this state. This is the cost of bringing Maine into compliance with the constitution.”

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee is just beginning its review of Mills’ $10 billion, two-year budget.

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