Lawmakers are making a second attempt at hiring Maine’s first public defenders with a $8.1 million proposal to the state budget committee.
Gov. Janet Mills left $20 million unallocated for lawmakers to distribute across all state programs in her supplemental budget and proposed change package after a positive state revenue forecast. The state Judiciary Committee is recommending 40 percent go to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS.
“We’re right now in the process of looking at all that additional revenue and deciding how to react to the governor’s proposals, so this will be in the mix,” said Rep. Teresa Pierce, the House chair of Appropriations and Financial Affairs. “… We all know how important MCILS is to anyone who wants justice in our state.”
The Legislature added $18.5 million to MCILS’s budget last year to hire employees and increase the hourly reimbursement of court-appointed attorneys for the first time since 2015. Lawmakers will ask to raise the rate again from $80 to $100 an hour at a cost of $4.6 million.
Pierce anticipated MCILS would seek additional money this year, but she could not gauge the interest of the Appropriations committee to dedicate more money to it at this time, she said.
Providing lawyers to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney is one of a few services Maine is required to offer by the state and federal constitutions. Maine is the only state that employs no public defenders and relies exclusively on private attorneys appointed by the court.
Democrats, Republicans and an Independent on the Judiciary Committee unanimously supported a $966,000 proposal from MCILS Executive Director Justin Andrus to hire the state’s first five public defenders that would be dispatchable to rural courts underserved by court-appointed attorneys.
Recently, regional shortages of available lawyers in Aroostook and Washington counties have required MCILS to assign lawyers from other parts of the state to indigent defendants, Andrus said.
“We’re going to provide all of the information that we’ve gathered in our work on this issue, the fact that there are real concerns about adequate representation in rural parts of Maine simply because there aren’t the attorneys available to be on the roster to do the work,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, a lawyer who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
Committee Democrats also recommended spending nearly $1.7 million to open a public defender office for Kennebec and Somerset counties. Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, joined committee Democrats in support of prioritizing the initiative be funded starting Oct. 1.
Legislation to open the state’s first trial-level public defender office unanimously passed the state House and Senate but has sat unfunded on the Special Appropriations Table since last year.
The public defender office would add 17 permanent positions to the state government, which Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said it was unlikely to earn the support of the Appropriations committee. She voted against the initiative in the Judiciary Committee. The dispatchable five-person public defender unit made more sense, she said, and voted to support it.
Keim has advocated for incremental increases to MCILS’s budget and staff in recent years to fix systemic problems with the state agency’s management and oversight. Keim requested an investigation by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which reported in November 2020 that MCILS was operationally inefficient and lacked financial controls.
MCILS staff and the commission that oversees it are working to remedy those problems.
“I see more significant change and work being done there than any other place in Maine right now and they are well worth our funding. We need to fund them, it’s a constitutional obligation. And I also think they need the encouragement. They need to know that we’re behind them,” Keim said.
It surprised Keim to not see MCILS in the governor’s supplemental budget or change package, she said.
In the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, Mills allocated $4 million to MCILS for counsel fees to work through the backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mills also signed budgets that expanded funding for MCILS, Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for the administration, wrote in a statement.
Mills continues to be interested in improving indigent legal services in Maine, Crete said.
Earlier this month, the ACLU of Maine sued MCILS for allegedly failing to create an effective public defense system in violation of defendants’ constitutional rights. The lawsuit played a backseat role in the committee’s decisions, lawmakers said.
Among the other initiatives being recommended for MCILS are:
— $275,580 to reimburse court-appointed lawyers for access to online legal research tools and printed court rules, jury instructions and statutes
— $300,000 for in-person attorney training
— $240,000 to contract specialists on diversion and mitigation, appellate cases, mentoring and co-counsel for new attorneys
Unaddressed are concerns defense attorneys raised about health insurance access and student loan relief.
Lawmakers instructed the Maine attorney general’s office to include public defenders in its next application to a federal student loan relief program, if the rural defender unit or public defender office is approved. The benefit is not being offered to court-appointed attorneys, however.
The state Legislature is scheduled to complete its work by April 20. Members of the Judiciary Committee said there was not enough time left to draft and pass a bill that would create a student loan forgiveness program or health care plan for court-appointed attorneys.
This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.