A boost in pay has prompted many criminal defense attorneys in central Maine to return to the rosters that judges use to appoint legal counsel to represent criminal defendants who are too poor to hire one.

The Maine Legislature agreed earlier this week to nearly double the hourly wage paid by the state to private attorneys who represent indigent clients charged with a crime that could result in a jail sentence.

A 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that the 6th Amendment requires that states provide indigent criminal defendants with legal representation.

The hourly pay hike from $80 to $150 went into effect on Tuesday at midnight.

Until last year, Maine was the only state in the country that relied exclusively on criminal defense attorneys who were willing to be appointed to the cases of indigent defendants.

A recent pilot public defender program aimed at providing legal counsel to indigent defendants in rural Maine also received a boost in funding in the supplemental budget approved by the Legislature this week.


Although the pay hike has only been approved through the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, attorneys who have returned to the roster are hopeful lawmakers will extend the increase through the biennial budget.

James Howaniec, a Lewiston attorney who has been practicing criminal defense for more than three decades, said that last fall he had taken his name off the list of lawyers who would take court-appointed cases.

But Howaniec decided on Monday to have his name added back to the rosters for court-appointed cases in Oxford and Cumberland counties and he expects to rejoin soon the list of attorneys willing to again represent criminal defendants in Androscoggin County.

“We know of a lot more lawyers who are are getting on board,” he said. “So, it’s the beginning of fixing the system.”

But, Howaniec added, “there’s still a long way to go.”

Maine’s courts have been clogged with a backlog of cases dating back years, even before the pandemic, which brought the criminal justice system to a screeching halt.


Since then, courts have attempted to alleviate the logjam, with limited success.

“It’s going to take a while to dig out of this mess, but we definitely see an infusion of lawyers returning to the rosters and that’s much needed in this time of crisis for sure,” Howaniec said.

Maine courts at one time carried a roster of more than 600 court-appointed criminal defense lawyers through the state-run Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

That number had dropped by roughly one-third before the pandemic, Howaniec said, due to a combination of retirements and changes in areas of professional focus, but largely due to the low pay afforded private attorneys taking criminal cases of indigent defendants.

A year after the start of the pandemic, when courts were opening up again, the roster had shrunk to fewer than 300 lawyers, half of what it had once been.

Earlier this year, fewer than 60 private criminal defense attorneys were willing to take on court-appointed clients.


Yet, when the Legislature appeared poised to nearly double the hourly rate, the number of rostered attorneys jumped by about 40 percent within a couple of weeks, according to Justin Andrus, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

Allan Lobozzo, a criminal defense attorney who left the roster of court-appointments more than five years ago, said he expected to join the list again Wednesday once the pay hike went into effect.

Lobozzo, whose Brunswick office includes a paralegal and an associate, said the lower pay of the past wasn’t enough to cover his overhead expenses.

In the 1980s, the state was paying $40 per hour for criminal defense. That wage was raised to $60 per hour, but remained stagnant for decades, until 2021 when it was upped to $80.

Lobozzo calls the recent raise a “significant” increase, “absolutely, without question.”

He said: “It’s the first increase ever, I think, that’s not just tokenism, but is really enough to change the landscape.”


Justin Leary, who is based in Auburn, said he left the rosters for court appointments in Androscoggin and Oxford Counties because he was overwhelmed by cases assigned by the courts. At $80 per hour, he couldn’t afford to hire the additional staff needed to handle that caseload.

With the wage hike from the Legislature, he plans to put his name back on those rosters once he’s thinned out his current caseload and is able to hire the help he’ll need, he said.

In addition to cases lagging in the courts — and defendants languishing in jails — the number of new criminal cases is on the rise, Howaniec said, up from less than 30,000 historically to roughly 35,000 last year.

Among the understaffed are court clerks, judicial marshals and state prosecutors, he said, adding to the backlog.

The increase in pay for criminal defense attorneys isn’t likely to reverse the case backlog in the courts anytime quickly, Howaniec said, predicting it will take time to have a meaningful effect.

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