A ballooning number of criminal cases is being dealt with by a dwindling number of attorneys who take court-appointed cases involving impoverished defendants unable to pay for their own.
Recent figures showed the number of felony and misdemeanor cases waiting to be resolved in Maine has increased 52% across the state since the start of the pandemic. However, analysis of the number of defense attorneys taking on that huge increase has actually dropped, in some places by a third over the last two years.
The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services tracks the number of rostered attorneys who are registered to take cases of various types for indigent defendants. There are 45 district courts and unified criminal docket courts (accounting for both district and superior courts combined) across the state of Maine. Every month, staff report the number of rostered attorneys for each of those courts.
Comparing figures for the number of rostered attorneys as a snapshot on December 31 for each of the years 2020, 2019 and 2018, over those years (spanning a two-year time period), every single district court and unified docket court has seen a fall in the number of rostered attorneys. These declines have mainly continued an ongoing fall and were not just because of the pandemic.
Year on year, rather than over the two year period, the numbers get more complicated.In fact, some courts saw a nominal increase in 2020.
Between December 31, 2018 and the same date a year later – before the pandemic - of those 45 lines of district courts and united criminal docket courts, only Farmington District Court (static) United Criminal Docket Farmington (static), and Skowhegan District Court (static), did not fall in the number of rostered attorneys. They did not increase either.
Between December 31, 2019 and the same date in 2020 after the pandemic started, the fall continued in all but eight of the 45 district courts and unified criminal docket courts. Of those eight, the numbers were either static or increased by just one additional attorney. Caribou District Court (static), Ellsworth District Court (up by one), Fort Kent District Court (up by one), Houlton District Court (static), Madawaska District Court (up by one), Millinocket District Court (up by one), Presque Isle District Court (up by one), Unified Criminal Docket Aroostook (up by one).
However, these nominal increases are more than offset by the larger number of attorneys taking themselves off the rosters for court-appointed cases elsewhere. A full breakdown of these numbers is available on PDF here. It is worth noting that these numbers do not represent the total number of attorneys taking court appointments as some are rostered in several courts.
This blog has already reported falling morale and criticisms by the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, including the $60 an hour paid to rostered attorneys that has not increased for several years. It is one of the lowest rates of pay for court-appointed attorneys in the United States.