Rep. Jeff Evangelos alleges in letter that Maine's attorney general has blocked reforms as court system collapses.
In this June 30, 2021, file photo, Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, listens to debate at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Retiring state Rep. Jeff Evangelos asked the U.S. Department of Justice on Sunday to place Maine’s criminal justice system under federal review and supervision for what he said are multiple attempts by the attorney general’s office to thwart reform during the past four years.

Evangelos, I-Friendship, has been an outspoken supporter of progressive criminal justice reforms throughout his four terms in the Legislature, which ended on Tuesday. He served on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the attorney general’s office, and he sponsored bills to introduce new post-conviction evidence, improve indigent public defense services and allow parole among other reforms.

His letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland included links to The Maine Monitor and other news organizations’ reporting, which he called a “dossier of evidence” that the state’s court system is collapsing.

Among the issue highlighted are the dwindling availability of criminal defense lawyers for the state’s poor, Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill’s recent comments that the state’s criminal court system is “failing,” Maine’s high rate of police shootings compared with other New England states and the attorney general office’s findings that those shootings were justified.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t respond to the Monitor’s request for comment in time for publication on Monday. It is unclear if the agency will act on Evangelos’ request.

Parts of Maine’s criminal court system are already being examined. The Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently undertaking a review of the state’s court-appointed defense system. The panel is expected to publish a report of its findings.

The Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is also suing state officials for allegedly providing indigent adult criminal defendants with an ineffective defense system. The attorney general office and ACLU agreed to hold settlement talks and had not reached an agreement as of late November.

Evangelos sent the letter on Sunday and was the only signatory. He said he shared the letter afterwards with about 10 lawmakers and offered to let them sign on. Evangelos had not received a response from the Justice Department as of Monday morning.

Evangelos has led multiple reform efforts while in office, including a bill to eliminate the one-year statute of limitation on introducing newly discovered evidence in convicted persons’ cases. The bill passed the House, 88-51, in June 2021 but died in the state Senate. A fiscal analysis estimated it would cost the courts, attorney general, district attorney’s and the state’s public defense agency at least $1.7 million annually. Evangelos disputes that the price would be that high.

Evangelos said Attorney General Aaron Frey is to blame. Frey was elected as attorney general in 2019 and served in the House of Representatives with Evangelos from 2012 to 2018.

“It’s a systemic collapse, and Aaron Frey has to go. I hope someone else will be nominated tomorrow, because Maine’s criminal justice system has collapsed around his feet,” Evangelos said during an interview on Monday.

A newly elected batch of state lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday. Evangelos didn’t seek election to office this year. He is also battling cancer.

Senators and representatives vote by secret ballot to elect an attorney general every two years.

“The Office of the Attorney General believes it is vital to maintain ongoing, constructive conversations with legislators and the public. Attorney General Frey has engaged significantly and in good faith with Rep. Evangelos, as he has with many other legislators, over the last four years and he will continue to do so,” Danna Hayes, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, wrote Monday.

“The Office of the Attorney General is one of many actors in the criminal justice system, including the Judiciary, the defense bar, and the Legislature, among others, who share responsibility for the challenges it faces. And Attorney General Frey will continue the work necessary to find solutions, remain faithful to the facts, the law, and ethical obligations and, ultimately, to ensure justice for Maine people,” she added.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.