Lawmakers approve funding to hire Maine’s first public defenders

A last-minute push by state lawmakers secured money to hire Maine’s first public defenders.

Maine lawmakers plan to spend nearly $966,000 to create a “rural public defender unit” to travel to courts across the state and provide direct legal representation to defendants who cannot afford to pay. hire their own lawyer. The five public defenders will be employees of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which is responsible for providing “effective, high-quality representation” to adult and juvenile defendants who cannot afford an attorney. .

Maine is currently the only state in the nation that does not employ any public defenders and instead relies on court-appointed private attorneys to defend the state’s poor. Plans to hire five public defenders will change this long-standing designation.

“It helps us cover areas in the state of Maine that don’t have enough lawyers,” said Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield).

Rural Maine counties face a looming crisis of not being able to find qualified attorneys for every indigent person who needs them, MCILS Executive Director Justin Andrus said. The crisis is “imminent,” with MCILS already struggling to find attorneys for cases in Aroostook and Washington counties, he said.

“The rural public defender program will extend our ability to process cases assuming we are able to implement it before we hit a crisis,” Andrus said.

The five public defenders are “not a solution, it’s a patch”, he added. MCILS will ultimately need about $51 million to open public defender offices in all 16 counties, according to Andrus.

MCILS was left out of the state’s $1.2 billion supplemental budget that lawmakers passed and Governor Janet Mills signed into law last week. The Democratic and Republican legislative caucuses agreed on Monday to split the cost of hiring public defenders for a fee well under $1.2 million. The bill will go to Mills, who intends to sign it, according to his spokesperson Lindsay Crete.

“Maine is the only state in the country that doesn’t have a public defender’s office. That’s a problem. would be state employees and provide public defender services to indigent defendants. I don’t think the importance can be overstated,” said Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee .

Maine Public Defenders

Each county in Maine has a workload that can support a public defender’s office, according to an ongoing analysis of historical workloads handled by MCILS, Andrus said. He estimates it would cost about $60 million a year to contract MCILS with court-appointed attorneys and employ public defenders in 16 offices to handle the county’s criminal, child protection and juvenile cases.

The estimate is based on a public defender’s office in 16 jurisdictions staffed by 22 people, including 10 lawyers, four investigators, four social workers, three paralegals and a supervisor to align with national best practices for supervision and support, Andrus said.

“I want a public defender’s office, which for me is this 22-person unit, in every county,” Andrus told the Maine Monitor.

His announcement that he wants a broader public defender system marks a significant policy shift at MCILS, which has relied on court-appointed attorneys since it opened in 2010.

Some of the attorneys MCILS contracted with to represent the state’s poor during its first decade of operation had criminal convictions and histories of malpractice, according to a joint investigation published in 2020 by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica. The agency also consistently failed to enforce its own rules and allowed courts to assign 2,000 serious criminal cases to lawyers who were ineligible because they had too little experience or lacked applied to work on complex cases, news organizations later reported.

Public defenders who are state employees will make it easier for MCILS to direct attorneys to work on cases and oversee that work, Andrus said. Even if Andrus gets the broader system he wants, it would include both public defenders and private court-appointed lawyers.

Andrus’ view of the need for public defenders is not universally shared by the seven commissioners who oversee the state agency. Some of the roughly 300 defense attorneys who currently contract with MCILS to provide legal services also say they will not participate in a public defender system.

Josh Tardy, the commission’s chairman, said he welcomes a dialogue about Andrus’s idea to add more public defender offices to supplement the work of court-appointed attorneys. The cost will need to be discussed further, he said.

For now, the rural public defense unit is an opportunity to demonstrate its usefulness to MCILS, he said.

“It’s a chance for policy makers to see how a public defender model – and it’s a term that’s very loosely defined – but how commission lawyers can do and what they can do to move the needle with our global mission,” Tardy said. .

A public defender system is not a solution in itself. Many states have public defenders working for underfunded offices and overburdened with cases. But the looming threat that MCILS will not be able to provide attorneys in every case necessitates a change.

A survey of Maine attorneys shows they are aging and closing law firms to retire, Andrus said. Young lawyers are burdened with student loan debt and health care costs that make court work — reimbursed at $80 an hour — financially difficult to run a law firm and live on, he said. he declares.

“To reasonably ensure that we can still handle a case in the future, MCILS requires the ability to tell an employee, ‘You’re going to this location tomorrow, to handle this case,'” Andrus said.

“Goals without resources”

MCILS has been criticized for failing to meet Maine’s obligation to provide legal services to Maine’s poor, but lawyers say the government is setting goals without providing the resources to meet them.

The Sixth Amendment Center, which was hired by the Legislature to review the state’s indigent defense system, reported in April 2019 that MCILS could not reasonably oversee the attorneys the agency had contracted with and that the the state’s criminal case was advancing at the expense of the defendants’ Constitution. rights. A report from the Maine Government Accountability Office later revealed serious financial management issues at the state agency in November 2020.

Andrus and the Commissioners have worked over the past year and a half to bring MCILS into compliance with its own rules and proposed workload limits, an audit procedure for billing attorneys, and an oversight regiment to oversee closer to the work of lawyers on cases. None of the proposals is final.

Lawyers who accept court appointments in cases have had varying reactions to the proposals. At least one attorney said caseload limits could prevent problems seen in other states where attorneys are given exorbitant caseloads by the courts. Other attorneys said they would hit the caseload limit mid-year and leave counties already short of attorneys even more short-staffed.

MCILS needs about 270 full-time attorneys to cover its annual pre-pandemic workload within the proposed limits, Andrus said. That’s roughly the number of attorneys currently under contract with MCILS to provide court-appointed legal services, though many also work on retained cases and practice other types of law.

Andrus hasn’t received instructions directly from the governor since the spring of 2021 on what else needs to change.

“I understood last year on all fronts that the objection to increasing our funding was usually about whether it was worth the investment,” Andrus said.

The commissioners requested $35.4 million in 2020 to open two public defender offices, increase attorney salaries, and hire staff for MCILS. Lawmakers voted to give MCILS $21.8 million in 2021, but the state appropriations committee ultimately agreed to provide only $18.5 million to the agency. Although Andrus explained to lawmakers that the agency still needed all of the requested funding, MCILS did not get the rest of the money.

Taylor Kilgore, who runs her own law firm in Turner and accepts court appointments to defend parents in child protection cases through MCILS, said it was frustrating that lawmakers and the governor do not consider the agency worthy of full investment. She complained that they don’t offer alternative solutions to those offered by Andrus.

“I get really frustrated when I don’t understand what the Legislative Assembly expects from MCILS without these resources. How can they achieve this goal without resources? said Kilgore.

The message sent is that MCILS must be punished, Kilgore said. But the lack of funding and support for MCILS punishes attorneys working with the commission, she said.

Kilgore went unpaid for several months in 2017 when MCILS ran out of money because it was not adequately funded by the Legislative Assembly. Her husband remembers asking Mills while she was campaigning for governor about funding for MCILS and how she planned to fix it.

“She went on and on and told him how she understood it was wrong and that she was going to be that person who could listen. His actions, at this point, don’t seem to match that sentiment,” Kilgore said.

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