A backlog in the most serious criminal cases is fast approaching double pre-pandemic levels across Maine – and even the number of minor cases is continuing to balloon.
Comparing January 2019 to January 2022, there are 80% more felonies and 58% more misdemeanors being dealt with by courts across the state.
However, it is in the detail where some of the increases are truly astonishing. In Penobscot county, there is a 181% increase in felonies (effectively nearly triple the normal number of cases) and 100% more misdemeanors (double what is normal). Aroostook’s cases have more than doubled in felonies and nearly doubled in the number of misdemeanors.
Other counties above the state average in both types of cases include Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, and Waldo.
The delay means people who are presumed innocent are waiting in jail, or on bail conditions, for a trial that is not happening anytime soon. It also means unresolved cases for victims, and a huge workload for attorneys, judges, court staff, and other people involved in the criminal legal system.
This blog has covered this eye-popping growth in unresolved cases in several articles. In context, the number of defense attorneys who take court appointed cases, for defendants unable to afford their own lawyer, has also shrunk since the Covid-19 pandemic began. That means far more cases being dealt with by a declining number of lawyers.
Defense attorneys have taken a hit by criticism from both members of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, over-simplistic media reporting, and in a study by a Boston organization that examines criminal defense systems across the United States.
The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which is responsible for providing criminal defense for the poor, is also in the process of conducting a survey of attorneys who do indigent criminal defense work. Of responses received so far, the average age in some counties is high (58 in Androscoggin was a standout figure) and is coupled with a low percentage of new attorneys willing to replace those who leave the roster.
Justin Andrus, in a report to MCILS, said that while the organization has been able to provide defendants with an attorney to represent them, unless the work is made more attractive with higher pay and an accounting for the expenses incurred by lawyers who do indigent defense work, that may change in the not too distance future.
By the numbers
These figures are for case type, county by county, on January 21, 2022, with percentage change compared with January 21, 2019.
Source: Maine Judicial Information System (MEJIS)