In order to ensure fairness and justice in our criminal legal system, Maine needs a well-funded indigent defense system. Maine has yet to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide and ensure effective representation for indigent criminal defendants.  

Simply put, Maine’s criminal legal system is not presently functioning in a way that guarantees the accused fairness or justice. The COVID-19 pandemic widened the fissures in Maine’s indigent defense system, resulting in an untenable backlog of cases, and drove many of Maine’s well-qualified defense attorneys off the court-appointed rosters. As of this month, only 65 defense attorneys in Maine are currently accepting new criminal appointments – down from more than 200 just one year ago. Only seven female attorneys are taking on new cases in Maine. Currently, and in every way, Maine is facing a constitutional crisis in its courts 

Dozens of accused people, presumed innocent, are languishing in jail without an appointed attorney. For those with a defense attorney, their attorney may be hundreds of miles away because the state is unable to find a local defense attorney. When a client pleads guilty, often that plea is motivated to ensure release from jail without fully weighing whether the state can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence and the right to a speedy trial – bedrock constitutional principles – have been trampled by the crisis before us. 

Why does this matter? Because everyday defense attorneys serve as checks and balances on the prosecution, judiciary and the overall fairness of Maine’s criminal justice system.

We remind others of the constitutional rights that we are all afforded. It is our job to hold the state to the rigorous demands of our nation’s burden to prove its cases beyond a reasonable doubt. We are well-trained in criminal law, the rules of evidence and holding the state accountable. Our clients are entitled to no less than effective, zealous representation.   

Without defense attorneys, and unless Maine has a well-funded robust indigent defense system to ensure rosters of well-qualified defense counsel sufficient to represent all indigent persons the state chooses to prosecute, there are no checks and balances. Without defense attorneys, there is no one left to fight for our clients. 


Although the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has made many improvements since 2019’s Sixth Amendment Center report, much work remains to be done. This legislative session, Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, is sponsoring L.D. 41, An Act to Increase the Hourly Reimbursement Rate of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services Lawyers to $150 per Hour. She and co-sponsor Rep. Steve Moriarty, D-Cumberland, have submitted this bill on an emergency basis – as they and so many other legislators recognize the desperate need to incentivize dedicated, experienced defense attorneys back onto the rosters.

Increasing the hourly rate is the only surefire way to induce highly qualified attorneys to accept indigent appointments. House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, has recently said that increasing attorney compensation and “fully support(ing) access to justice” is a top priority in the Legislatureand that bipartisan support exists to get the job done. 

However, the Legislature and Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services cannot implement the changes and funding necessary on their own. Gov. Mills’ administration must also act (and quickly) to allocate necessary resources to ensure that Maine has a robust and well-run indigent defense system. While the governor’s good-faith initial budget proposal for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services addresses some of the funding concerns of the commission, the commission’s own budget initiatives go further and call for a much larger expenditure – a necessary expenditure given the crisis we are currently facing. 

Without a significant and immediate influx of funding to pay attorneys and to establish a defense system with the requisite funding, structure and support that justice demands, Maine’s criminal legal system will finally collapse.  

Maine’s defense counsel and the clients we represent need a lifeline, and we need it now. In 2023, we implore our leaders to finally fulfill Maine’s obligations under the Constitution and fully fund indigent defense to ensure that the rights of all our people are preserved and protected. 

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