A group of men stand in a courtroom.
Jquam Bailey (center), who is charged with trafficking fentanyl in Greater Bangor, sought to have his bail lowered because no lawyer is available to take his case. There is a statewide shortage of attorneys willing to take court appointed cases. Joseph Belisle (right) was Bailey's attorney for the day. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A New York man accused of being part of a drug distribution ring bringing fentanyl to Maine has asked a Superior Court judge to either find a lawyer to represent him or lower his bail significantly so that he can be released from jail.

Jquam Bailey, 34, of the Bronx, New York, was arrested on June 2 with five other people at a house in Enfield and charged with aggravated drug trafficking. He has been held at the Penobscot County Jail unable to post $25,000 cash bail since then.

Bailey is one of a dozen or more defendants in Maine who qualify for but have not been appointed lawyers at their first court appearances due to a critical shortage of lawyers willing to represent indigent clients. Lawyers throughout the state and in Penobscot County have balked at taking on cases due to low pay and high caseloads.

Superior Court Justice William Anderson said Thursday at Bailey’s bail hearing that just four lawyers in Penobscot County are accepting appointments for criminal cases.

Superior Court Justice William Anderson talks about the problem of the statewide shortage of lawyers willing to take court-appointed cases. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“This is unusual and unprecedented,” the judge said of the crisis.

Anderson noted that in 2018 there were 44 lawyer available to take criminal cases, but that number had fallen to 29 the following year. He said that he has been working to find a lawyer outside of Penobscot County to take Bailey’s case and expected to make an appointment on Friday.

In addition to the lack of lawyers taking court appointments, finding a lawyer for Bailey has been complicated by the fact that he had five co-defendants who also needed lawyers.

Bailey on Thursday did not claim that his constitutional rights had been violated in the delay to find a lawyer to represent him. He did ask that his bail be lowered to $5,000 cash, which he would be able to post so that he could return to New York, work and hire his own lawyer.

Assistant Attorney General Jason Horn told Anderson that even if Bailey were to make bail, a warrant for his arrest out of Pennsylvania for escape from a prison there would prevent him from returning to his home state.

Anderson concluded that under Maine’s bail code, not having an attorney was not a reason to lower a defendant’s bail. But the judge expressed frustration over the situation.

“It seems like a judge ought to be able to do something,” he said.

The lack of lawyer willing to take criminal cases is now a statewide crisis, as the state is constitutionally obligated to ensure criminal defendants have lawyers.

Last year, judges in Aroostook County reached outside that county’s borders because there weren’t enough local lawyer available. The Maine Monitor reported last month that 11 lawyers each have more than 301 open cases, and half of the open indigent cases are being managed by just 33 lawyers.

Maine does not have a public defender system but instead contracts with defense attorneys, who are paid $80 an hour once a case is resolved. They are paid by and overseen by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

The commission qualifies lawyers for certain types of cases based on their courtroom experience. Lawyers also may opt to handle only misdemeanor cases or domestic violence cases or homicide cases. Drug cases like Bailey’s are considered to be violent felonies, and lawyers must have some trial experience to qualify to be assigned them.

Also charged on June 2 with aggravated drug trafficking were: Tammy Lee, 61, Christopher Campbell, 20, and Madison Whitmore, 18, all of Enfield; and Naim Stewart, 32, and Kenute Walker, 33, both of the Bronx, New York.

If convicted, Bailey and the other defendants face up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.