state budget

Our View: Maine’s Indigent legal services system cannot wait for help any longer

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Maine’s system for indigent legal services is in crisis, without enough lawyers to cover cases, or money to attract more.

People wait outside the Biddeford District Court to make their initial court appearances. Earlier this year, lawmakers agreed to allocate $966,000 to employ Maine’s first five full-time public defenders. But hiring has not yet begun, and no one thinks that will be enough. Photo courtesy of Gabe Souza

The system has been headed toward this emergency for months, even years now, yet Gov. Mills and the Legislature have failed to take sufficient action.

They cannot wait any longer. Gov. Mills should call immediately for a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers can provide funding as soon as possible.

Every day she waits is another day that the state of Maine violates the rights of the defendants who cannot afford their own legal representation – rights given to them under the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution.

The state has been violating those rights for some time, thanks to its one-of-a-kind system for providing indirect legal services.

Maine is the only state without a public defender‘s office. Instead, it pays private attorneys to represent poor defendants through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

It has been an insufficient system for years. But warning bells really began ringing in late 2019, when the Government Oversight Committee ordered an investigation following a study that cited “serious concerns” about overbilling and inadequate performance.

While the commission has made improvements since then, it has not overcome its central issue: There aren’t enough lawyers willing to take cases.

The problem has only gotten worse since the pandemic, as the courts try to work through a backlog. There are now 27,600 pending misdemeanor and felony cases

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