Maine’s proposed 2023 state budget, as announced last week by Gov. Mills, includes additional funding to increase hourly rates and hire 10 full-time defense lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants in Maine’s courts. This is good news and a good first step toward bringing our criminal justice system up to constitutional standards in this critical area. 

However, there is a lot more that needs to be done.  

Maine is the only state in the union without some form of organized public defender system to provide effective representation of indigent defendants in criminal cases. The system by which private lawyers are asked to represent indigent persons accused of crime on a case-by-case basis and are compensated at a very modest hourly rate has finally broken down. News stories of jailed defendants in rural areas waiting weeks for lawyers to be appointed for them resonate with more formal studies and reports, all documenting the inadequacy of what we are doing now.   

An increase in the hourly rate and several additional lawyers at work should improve things to a certain extent. As the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services emphasized last Tuesday, we should not, we cannot stop here. An effective public criminal defense capability requires: 

• A strong cadre of lawyers of varying levels of specialization and experience to handle cases of varying complexity and difficulty as well as appeals and post-conviction matters.

• A credible organization to train, motivate and manage the defense lawyers.  


• Appropriate personnel charged with supervision and evaluation of their work.  

• Structures and facilities for efficient deployment of public and private defense counsel among the many courts located across the state.

• Access to investigative and research resources when needed.  

And, ultimately, a viable agency should be charged with the responsibility of ensuring the adequacy of service on a statewide basis. At the same time, court staff should be relieved of the burden of seeking out lawyers for indigent defendants and getting them to serve. Without these features, it will be hard for Maine to achieve consistent high quality in the legal representation provided our indigent defendants.  

This does not mean we need a system consisting entirely of full-time public defenders. Many states make use of private attorneys to supplement full-time defense counsel in rural areas, in cases of conflicts of interest among multiple defendants, or where specialized expertise is required. That makes sense for Maine. However, the private lawyers must be selected, accredited, trained, overseen, evaluated and adequately compensated. The key is to provide a credible organizational backbone that can utilize both public and private lawyers to provide high-quality representation as efficiently as possible.  

Of course, we should encourage the Maine Legislature to take the present step in the right direction by approving the proposed appropriation for indigent criminal defense services in Gov. Mills’ budget. But we should not assume that the process of reform of Maine’s system of indigent criminal defense can stop here. As we applaud this initial development, we need to urge our political leaders keep this issue on the front burner. As this first step of reform takes hold, we need to encourage them to take the further steps needed to make us all proud of how every Mainer is treated by our system of criminal justice.  

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.