Some attorneys practicing in Franklin County no longer are taking court-appointed sexual assault cases, in protest of what they call a low wage for their legal services.

Payment to handle court appointed cases has not changed for 15 years, but criminal defense attorneys face an uphill battle to get an increase in funding in a time when schools and roads are coming up short of cash.

The Legislature approved increasing reimbursement from $50 to $55 per hour last session, which takes effect in July; but attorney Walter Hanstein said the “token increase” still will not be enough to cover the costs incurred while defending against a serious charge such as a sexual assault.

Hanstein, who practices at Joyce, David & Hanstein in Farmington, said the state will continue to pay lower wages than it should as long as lawyers are willing to accept it.

He said sexual assault cases are infrequent enough that their protests won’t halt court procedings. However, he said, a shortage of attorneys to cover alleged sex offenders could create enough problems to draw legislative attention to their demands for a more substantive raise.

“Our hope is that it becomes a problem for the court that the system can’t keep sweeping under the rug,” he said. “If for moral reasons the Legislature won’t do it, then maybe for practical reasons they will.”

In a letter to the Franklin County court clerk, Hanstein and attorney David Sanders said that they will not handle sexual assault cases until they are paid $70 per hour for such cases.

“We do this with a great deal of regret, because for more than 25 years we have each regularly accepted such appointments, even though every time we handled one, it kept us from spending time on our far better paying retained legal matters,” the letter states.

Sexual assault cases are some of the most difficult, stressful cases attorneys handle for court-appointed defendants, and the letter stated that the current rate of pay is no longer fair compensation for the service.

The attorneys refusing the cases were quick to point out their pay is far less than the $333 an hour the state is paying private attorneys to represent Centers for Disease Control officials in a whistleblower lawsuit.

“That’s really galling to the people in the trenches. It’s not a criminal case. It’s a civil case. There’s no jail time involved,” Hanstein said.

Hanstein said the court-appointed cases make up about 15 percent of his practice. The $50 hourly wage may seem like a lot to outsiders, he said, but it is not directly translated to salary. The money goes toward running the whole practice, from malpractice insurance to copying to office help.

The executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which directs state-paid legal services, said he does not anticipate the attorneys’ efforts resulting in a lack of lawyers for low-income defendants.

“We understand the attorneys are frustrated at the low rate of pay. Our goal and my expectation is that we will find lawyers,” John Pelletier said.

He said the system under the current wage is experiencing financial problems and is asking for $860,000 from the Legislature to prevent a shortfall in funding like the one that happened last year.

He said the commission expects to handle around 25,000 cases, which is accounted for in the budget, but is being strained by handling more serious and costly cases than expected.

Pelletier said that the Legislature helped when it raised the wage to $55 per hour, but attorneys still are operating at a loss if they defend a court-appointed defendant for $55, compared to a privately retained defendant for about $150 an hour.

“I view any attorney providing indigent legal services as, in part, providing pro bono work,” he said.

It remains to be seen how effective the Franklin County attorneys’ efforts are.

Since the letter was sent March 6 to the clerk’s office, a Livermore Falls man, Casey Braley, was charged with sexually exploiting a Franklin County minor. The case was refused initially by attorney Allan Lobozzo, of Lewiston, but was reassigned this week to Philip Mohlar, of Skowhegan.

Mohlar did not return requests for comment.

Lobozzo said he refused the case after hearing about Hanstein and Sanders no longer taking such cases. He said when he first started taking cases in the 1980s, the rate for court-appointed cases was $40 per hour.

“Which, if you look at the consumer price index, is the equivalent of $78 in today’s dollars. It’s not a matter of greed; it’s a matter of fairness,” he said.

Attorney Adam Sherman, of Lewiston, said he asked the Franklin County clerks no longer to call him for court-appointed sexual assault cases after he and other Maine attorneys tried other avenues to get more pay, including hiring a lobbyist, calling legislators and testifying at committee meetings.

Sherman said the attorneys aren’t part of any organized labor group, but he thinks most of the 11 attorneys in Franklin County approved to handle sex crimes cases are refusing to accept more cases.

“We think we might have all 11 on board,” he said.

Sherman said he is concerned that with Gov. Paul LePage’s new proposed legislation to increase drug enforcement, people are not considering the hidden cost of defending the additional people arrested.

“Nowhere was there mentioned more money for more defense attorneys. I don’t know if everyone in the Legislature understands, in the end, you can’t put somebody in jail without us,” he said.

He said if enough lawyers refuse court-appointed sexual assault cases, then it could create a serious problem for the state.

“It’s a constitutional requirement. Eventually, if some of these people held for these crimes qualify for a court-appointed attorney but the courts are not able to provide them one, those people could start filing requests with the court to have their cases dismissed,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 kschroeder@centralmaine.com