Gov. Janet Mills said Monday that she will sign a bill creating an office of rural public defenders, who will travel to courts across the state to provide legal representation to indigent defendants.

The Maine Senate and House each voted Monday to approve creating the office, which will employ the first public defenders to work for the state.

Maine has been the only state that doesn’t employ public defenders. It has relied exclusively on private attorneys appointed by the court to represent defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.

The bill now goes to Mills, who in a statement issued by her office Monday night, said she intends to sign L.D. 1686 into law. The legislation won’t take effect for 90 days.

The five roving attorneys assigned to the unit will work for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. The current system relies on a roster of about 280 private attorneys who are paid to represent indigent defendants. The number of attorneys on the state roster has been declining, with some saying they have stopped taking cases because of low pay, low morale, and insufficient support and resources.

The new mobile unit will be assigned to cover regions that don’t have enough lawyers, such as Aroostook and Washington counties.

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“There are no geographical limitations,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield. Keim serves on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and says there is great need for a designated public defenders office. “They will be sent wherever they are needed.”

Keim said the new unit probably could benefit from more funding – its budget is $1.25 million – and she will push in future sessions for a new name. She said the “Office of Public Defense Services” is a more appropriate title. But, for now, Keim said, the need for lawyers in underserved areas is great.

“This is a slimmed down version of what we wanted. It’s a small measure, but a big step forward,” Keim said Monday evening.

Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, could not be reached Monday.

Maine’s system for providing lawyers to low-income defendants has faced heavy criticism in recent years. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine announced it was suing the legal services commission, arguing that the state has failed to fulfill its responsibilities under the Sixth Amendment, which ensures legal representation to all criminal defendants.

In her statement, Mills said she increased funding for the commission from about $20 million to $26.9 million a year, and increased pay for participating attorneys from $60 to $80 an hour. The governor’s Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan allocates $4 million to the commission for counsel fees to work through the backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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