Maine’s first public defender office was slated to begin accepting cases this month, but delays by the Legislature have kept the state’s flawed system of public defense in place for another year.
Lawmakers unanimously supported opening the state’s first public defender office by January 2022, but their plans stalled at the end of the last legislative session. The proposal is still alive, and the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee could recommend lawmakers enact the legislation this year.
Most states employ public defenders to represent people who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. Maine is the only one that contracts exclusively with private lawyers to represent these defendants. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, historically was too underfunded and understaffed to supervise, train and financially audit the defense of all adults and children it helps defend.
Establishing a public defender office remains one of the agency’s many priorities, said Executive Director Justin Andrus.
Last year, an investigation by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica revealed that some defendants charged with serious felony crimes were assigned attorneys through MCILS who didn’t meet the state’s minimum practice standards. The courts made at least 2,000 case assignments in five years to ineligible attorneys, an analysis by the news organizations showed.
At the time, national experts and the chairman of Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services criticized the agency for not enforcing its own rules.
The agency overhauled its assignment review process in response to the news organizations’ reporting. Court appointments are now being manually reviewed and corrected, when necessary, by new employees, Andrus said. Attorneys are asked to show MCILS that they have the requisite experience or withdraw from the case, he said.
Many private attorneys have stopped accepting court-appointed cases through MCILS. The list of attorneys dropped from 375 lawyers in February 2021 to 279 lawyers accepting new appointments by the end of the year, Andrus said.
Unrealistically high caseloads for remaining court-appointed counsel makes the need for a public defender office more real now than at the end of the legislative session in 2021, said Commissioner Bob Cummins.
“There’s a more compelling need for it now than there was six months ago — a far more compelling need. And it’s only going to get worse,” Cummins said.