In this Sept. 15, 2022, file photo, Superior Court Justice William Anderson talks about the problem of the statewide shortage of attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Eric Floyd studied at the University of Maine at Augusta and is incarcerated at Bolduc Correctional Facility. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or UMaine System. This column is a guest contribution from the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

There is a problem with Maine’s legal system, especially for poor people, or what the system calls indigent. It is well documented that the poor do not get proper legal help. The criminal justice system, beginning with law enforcement officials and the arrest, is biased against the poor, too often treating them differently than someone who might be well off.

I understand how this process affects people. I found that my social class background shaped my encounter with the legal system and subsequent incarceration. Once we are sentenced, we simply become a number in the system.

The role of bias in police discretion often leads officers to treat the poor unjustly. The person with money is more likely to receive just a summons, whereas a poor person without money is more likely to be arrested and taken to jail. Once in jail, someone without financial means will most likely have to sit there and wait for their trial because they are unable to afford bail.

Even if the accused is innocent, a court-appointed lawyer may not be sufficient to avoid incarceration. Too often, this system seems designed to embolden prosecutors. If a poor person is locked up right from the beginning, feeling hopeless and beat down with no other options, that person is more likely to plead to whatever the prosecutors present.

A defendant will be lucky if they get a better deal than what a district attorney offers. Frequently, an inadequate public defense results in the accused individual receiving a longer sentence than a person with money who can pay for high-quality legal help. A defendant also could face intimidation if the district attorney’s offer is not taken, potentially resulting in longer sentences.

There has been extensive coverage of this serious problem in Maine. The crisis is evident in frequent turnover within those who oversee indigent legal services in Maine. A commissioner resigned from Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS) in 2022, citing a crisis in the way that poor defendants like me are treated. More recently, the state’s first lead public defender resigned from leading Maine’s Rural Defender Unit.

A 2021 recent investigative report by the Maine Monitor and Propublica found that at least 2,000 case assignments were made over five years to lawyers who lacked qualifications or who had not applied for those types of cases. Very recently, the current indigent legal service’s commissioner, Justin Andrus, also announced he would resign later this year.

So what can we do to help fix this problem? Maine made progress with LD 1703 in 2021 by eliminating cash bail for Class E misdemeanors and taking in account the realities of a defendant’s social class standing.

Maine recently enacted a supplemental budget to increase pay for those providing indigent legal services and Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed budget includes funding to hire 10 additional public defenders. The Maine Legislature is also on the right track, considering numerous bills that would address indigent legal services, address structural changes that could lead to a more equitable legal system and provide better compensation for public defenders.

But more work must be done to establish an adequate public defender’s system like in other parts of the U.S. As a state, inequality in the legal system is truly a matter that needs to be investigated and addressed. Maine has an opportunity to realize a modern, just and equitable legal system.