Governor Janet Mills has set aside millions in her proposed budget to improve funding for criminal defense for the poor.
Her proposal, the governor has set aside $6.1million for the next two years for funding to establish a tiered billing rate for assigned legal counsel, effective May 1, 2023. This rate would be no less than $80 (the current rate for all cases) and no more than $150 per hour.
This is a continuation of work to make additional payments to attorneys for more serious or specialized cases - OUIs, domestic violence, serious violent felonies, sexual offenses, and homicides. These tiers would be established by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which is responsible for overseeing the state's current assigned counsel system.
The additional funding was proposed in her $10.3 billion biannual state budget proposal, released on Wednesday January 11, 2023. The funding is what would be paid to court-appointed attorneys who represent defendants unable to afford their own lawyer.
The funding proposal comes amid a precipitous decline in the number of attorneys taking criminal defense cases, a rise in the number of cases, and a delay in the cases already scheduled. This mess has gotten the attention of the highest court in the state.
At the end of last year, Maine's most senior judge - Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill - painted a bleak picture of an overwhelmed court system in a "crisis," with courts "barely" maintaining a "frightening" number of criminal cases, while the the number of attorneys representing poor defendants has fallen "dramatically."
She also described "chronic" under funding of the system and asked for more attorneys in Maine to help a "dire" situation in the short term.
She also described "chronic" underfunding of the system and asked for more attorneys in Maine to help a "dire" situation in the short term.