Hard-fought reforms to public defense system were enacted without the signature of Gov. Mills

Gov. Mills lets public defense changes become law

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 12:00pm

    Maine will change how it provides some legal services to low-income residents after lawmakers parsed a multi-million dollar proposal to fit in the state’s two-year budget. The compromise, however, did not earn the endorsement of Gov. Janet Mills, who let two bills become law on July 15 without her signature. 

    Members of the state Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee reached a compromise to add $18.5 million to Maine’s public defense agency — less than the $21.8 million originally supported by the Legislature. Under the new agreement, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, will have more money to find a permanent executive director, hire employees, set standards for attorney conduct and raise lawyers’ wages. Lawmakers attached to the money a requirement that commissioners report back by January about their progress.

    Rep. Barbara Cardone (D-Bangor), a lawyer who serves on the state budget committee and advocated for money for MCILS, said it was no secret that public defense is underfunded in Maine.

    “This bill certainly does not get us over the finish line, but it gets us off the starting gate toward funding a system for meeting our constitutional obligation for indigent legal services. I look forward to continuing to work on this project,” Cardone said.

    Wrongdoings by the public defense agency’s former executive director and the lawyers he contracted with were the focus of investigations by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica. The news reports detailed financial mismanagement, professional misconduct and numerous failures by leadership to enforce basic rules at the state agency.

    Criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney are constitutionally guaranteed one under the Sixth Amendment. Maine is the only state that does not employ public defenders and instead contracts with private attorneys to provide legal services to its poor. Despite the federal and state requirement to provide counsel, the Legislature has historically underfunded MCILS, and required its director to seek supplemental funding to pay defense lawyers and keep the lights on.

    Josh Tardy, the commission chairman, praised the $18.5 million as a substantial investment by the Legislature and a sign of progress for the agency, despite the total being about half what the commission said it needed in October. He said the requirement that the commission report back to the Legislature in January was “good government.”

    The House and Senate unanimously passed sweeping reforms of MCILS on June 17, but the bills could not take effect without the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee adding money to the state budget. The state budget committee unanimously agreed on June 27 to the parsed-down proposal before making a unanimous vote on the overall budget. The budget received overwhelming support in both chambers and was signed by Mills.

    But some planned changes for MCILS are on hold. The budget committee halted plans to move employees, who screen defendants at courthouses to determine their financial ability to pay for a lawyer, out of MCILS and into the judicial branch. The change would have cost at least $300,000 to implement. Money to open the state’s first public defender office in Kennebec County also didn’t materialize.

    David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center that released a report critical of Maine’s public defense system in April 2019, said the organization’s recommendations for staffing at MCILS were dependent on a county public defender office and a statewide appellate public defender office.

    “That MICLS got less than the recommended number of staff without any public defender offices means they will not have the people to properly oversee the quality and billing of the private bar,” Carroll said.