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Maine Court Crisis Leaves Nearly 200 With No Lawyer


York Judicial Center in Biddeford

The crisis of criminal defense in Maine continues with more than 180 poor defendants without a court-appointed attorney.


The judicial branch, the courts in other words, distributes a spreadsheet of cases giving the names of those without a lawyer appointed by the court because they cannot afford to pay for one. Hundreds of cases are involved. In those instances the court has said defendants should have a lawyer but none could be found to take the case.


More than half (88 defendants) were in rural Aroostook county - traditionally desperate for attorneys of any kind - but the shortage of attorneys willing to take court appointments for criminal cases has also affected the most populous counties in the state. The next three counties were York (54 defendants), Penobscot (40 defendants), and Cumberland (26 defendants) where someone charged is still waiting for a lawyer to take their case. Some are in custody.


In all, there were 227 cases and 184 defendants. Several had multiple dockets and one had six without any attorney representing them. 


Many of the rosters for certain case types, like drunk driving, domestic violence, or serious violent felonies, are empty with no attorney actively seeking cases for appointment. Any gap then leaves courts ruling that someone is entitled to a lawyer but no one is available.


A person deemed to be indigent is unable to afford their own attorney. They are constitutionally entitled to be given one, but there are not enough attorneys available for the current caseloads. The numbers affect those deemed to be indigent.


Much of the current crisis stems from the shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic - as well as a lack of discretion by prosecutors in either bringing a case to begin with or not being reasonable in plea offers to bring the caseload down and resolve cases.


The initial rapid rise in the number of cases still pending has started to slow from pre-pandemic levels, particularly for misdemeanors, but overall case numbers are still much higher than they were before the pandemic started.  There are still 66% more felonies awaiting resolution and 39% more misdemeanors when comparing November 2023 to November 2019.


Update: subsequent sheets have shown that this number has reduced, but about 35 defendants are in custody without a lawyer.

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