Criminal defense for those who cannot afford an attorney in Maine is “underfunded“ by the state and there is a “desperate need” for more staff for the commission tasked with providing it to poor clients, its chairman has acknowledged.
Joshua Tardy, chairman of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS), spoke to members of the Maine State Bar Association in a virtual meeting held on Monday November 30, updating Maine lawyers on its recent progress following recent criticisms.
Over-simplified media reporting has characterized many criminal defense lawyers as overbilling, which Mr. Tardy did little to dispel - while thanking those who take indigent cases by court appointment. He said there had been “notable examples“ of “overbilling or misbilling”. Underfunding of indigent legal services in Maine was one area of criticism by the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) that has only recently been addressed by MCILS, which proposed a doubling of its current budget. This would still not bring Maine to funding levels in Massachusetts, which funds indigent defense at three times that of Maine per capita. It also proposed increasing the hourly rate from $60 an hour.
Mr. Tardy told the meeting, “We are coming into a very very important budget discussion, wherein we need to convince the chief executive, Governor [Janet] Mills as well as the legislature that we are underfunded, [and] that we are in desperate need of additional funding for office staff at the commission...”
Four members of staff in Augusta are expected to oversee the billing of 2,500-3,000 vouchers for services provided every month. Mr. Tardy also spoke of some of the commission’s work to improve training for rostered attorneys, revise practice standards, implement a pilot public defender project for Kennebec county, and introduce a state-wide appellate public defender office - among other changes.
Improvements include increasing the minimum training required to become rostered from one day to five days. During the session Mr. Tardy incorrectly said the current minimum is a two-day seminar as currently constituted. It is just one day.
The current budget proposal is to establish a public defender office as a pilot for Kennebec county, with nine attorneys and support staff. Mr. Tardy said Maine was an “outlier” in not having a public defender model - though the 6AC report also said there was nothing inherently better or worse about a public defender, it was simply a better way to control costs.
The commission is also within two weeks of posting a replacing job advertisement for an executive director to replace John Pelletier, who steps down in mid-December. Mr. Tardy said a replacement could take 60-120 days to find with a national search. An interim executive director may be appointed in the meantime.
“For all the stories we hear about ... I think some of the finest representation people can have comes from rostered attorneys,” said Mr. Tardy.