Half of Maine’s alms cases are defended by just 33 attorneys, analysis finds
Maine officials may ask attorneys handling large caseloads of indigent defendants to stop accepting new court assignments, after finding that each of 11 attorneys has more than 301 open cases, and that half of open indigent cases are handled by only 33 lawyers.
This development is the latest sign that the network of Maine attorneys representing defendants unable to pay their own lawyers is overstretched. Maine is the only state that does not employ public defenders. Instead, contract defense attorneys are overseen by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS.
“We can’t keep asking lawyers to take on more cases than they should be taking on responsibly,” said MCILS commissioner Ron Schneider.
The current crisis is the confluence of two problems. Maine courts had 58% more unsolved felonies, misdemeanors and civil violations in August than three years ago, before the pandemic. At the same time, there are fewer lawyers accepting cases involving a defendant who is too poor to pay a lawyer.
Lawyers still accepting new cases as of August 9 had 23,655 cases open. Almost half – 49% – are assigned to just 33 lawyers, according to a recent analysis by MCILS. These totals do not take into account the files opened by lawyers who are no longer accepting new files.
MCILS is checking that it’s not overcrowding open cases and this week instructed attorneys to close completed cases and “lawyer of the day” appearances, resulting in an approximately 10% drop in open cases, said its executive director, Justin Andrus. Yet, he said, the general trend remains unchanged. “Only a very small subset are actively taking the bulk of our cases,” he said.
The group’s commission gave Andrus permission to ask attorneys to stop accepting new cases or refuse appointments to additional cases if the attorneys seem to have too many. Andrus declined to say Wednesday whether it had ever happened.
State lawmakers tasked MCILS with setting workload standards when the agency was created in 2010, but that hasn’t happened. Andrus has presented proposals in recent months for how MCILS could limit cases, but commissioners have not finalized a rule.
Governor Janet Mills, who is campaigning for re-election, could consider “additional potential solutions, such as a recruitment drive,” to attract more lawyers to work with the state’s indigent defendants, Lindsay Crete said. , the governor’s spokesman.
Mills worked as a court-appointed defense attorney and later as a state attorney general. In recent years, she has been reluctant to increase MCILS’ budget due to government and news reports of lax financial oversight and misconduct by attorneys.
Mills signed budgets with more money for MCILS and allocated $4 million in pandemic funds to pay attorney fees while the courts deal with the backlog of cases delayed by COVID-19.
When asked if MCILS had addressed his concerns, Crete said, “The governor appreciates the work done by the commission to improve billing oversight and accountability.”
Republican challenger Paul LePage said Maine should move to county-based public defenders, similar to the system of district attorneys who prosecute cases. He said it “should be funded by the state to ensure that all defendants have adequate access to counsel.”
“Defendants have a constitutional right to counsel. For this reason, I have been a longtime supporter of a public defender system,” LePage wrote in response to questions from the Maine Monitor.
While governor, LePage sent a bill to lawmakers to open a Public Defender’s Office that would have employed and hired attorneys to defend the state’s indigents. Lawmakers rejected the proposal in March 2016.
Maine is no longer able to guarantee that an attorney will be appointed for every case. Some Aroostook County defendants went days without a lawyer, The Maine Monitor previously reported.
Maine Senate Speaker Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Judiciary Committee Chair Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, are “deeply concerned” about the shortage of defense attorneys in rural Maine, according to a statement from a Democratic spokeswoman.
Jackson sponsored a bill to open a legal aid clinic on the Fort Kent campus of the University of Maine. A bipartisan group of lawmakers also secured $966,000 for MCILS to hire five public defenders to work as a traveling “rural public defender unit” to directly serve defendants in areas where there are not enough people. lawyers. Hiring has not started.
Carney said filling the five public defender positions remains a priority.
“We know this won’t solve all system problems,” Carney wrote. “Unfortunately, the lack of attorneys representing indigent defendants in criminal cases is a persistent problem in a number of other states, all of which have some sort of public defender system. This is not to excuse what is happening. happening in Maine, but rather to highlight the widespread problems in this area of law.
The Monitor reported in July that New Hampshire had a “waiting list” of nearly 1,000 cases that did not have an assigned attorney. Public defenders had reached their peak caseload and many senior defenders had quit their jobs, further diminishing the state’s ability to represent indigent cases.
LePage said lawyers need incentives to move to rural Maine counties to practice law.
“Maine doesn’t have a lawyer shortage problem. We have a problem with too many lawyers in urban areas,” LePage said. “We need to provide incentives for young lawyers to live and work in our rural communities through student loan reform, not student loan forgiveness. Our rural communities not only face a shortage of lawyers in our criminal defense system, but also of legal services in general.
Josh Tardy, chairman of the commission and a former Republican state legislator, said a special session of the state legislature may be needed to resolve MCILS’s issues. A special session was not discussed, a spokeswoman for Jackson confirmed.
Carney said the $62.1 million annual budget proposal that MCILS plans to submit to Mills and the state legislature is “thoughtful” and “well-researched.” Work on the biennial state budget will begin in December after the elections, she said.
MCILS’ budget proposals will be decided after a public hearing at the Judiciary Committee, she said.
“This is the right path to adopting a new system, not a shortcut,” Carney wrote.
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