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Platitudes And Lack Of Concrete Plans Mark Governor’s Budget Speech

Governor Janet Mills

Governor Janet Mills offered only platitudes and a BandAid solution to the crisis facing criminal defense for the poor in her budget speech last night.

The backlog of cases is at record level highs, while the number of defense attorneys available to take those cases is at record lows.

The only concrete proposal she said she supported was adding extra funding for ten rural public defenders. There are currently five. At its height, more then 400 private defense attorneys were available to take court appointed cases (there are now less then 70) - illustrating in context what little difference that will make.

Other than that, the governor stuck with her usual 'proposal' of asking law firms to have their inexperienced attorneys make their mistakes with the lives of poor people facing criminal cases. She said she had written letters to law firms. Fantastic. That'll do it.

Notable for its omission was the lack of explicit support for a rise in the pay of the existing attorneys who take such cases, which has bipartisan support to increase from $80 an hour to $150. This covers all expenses an attorney needs to pay, such as benefits, office space, and legal resources. It is also what is paid to and spent on prosecutors. Many attorneys have simply stopped doing the work because it makes no financial sense.

Unspent money was found recently to increase that amount to $150 temporarily - but it needs to be appropriated by the legislature for it to be permanent.

She said: "...I know the Legislature is concerned about our Constitutional obligation to provide legal counsel to low-income Maine people.

I am too.

"I have proposed funding for ten new public defenders, building on the five positions established during the last legislative session. I ask you to approve these positions.And to complement this effort,

"I have written to dozens of law firms around the state asking them to designate one or more attorneys to join the roster of counsel available to accept indigent legal cases. It is good for the firms, good for the courts, and good for the people. This problem will require a comprehensive effort, inside and outside of government, including, first and foremost, reducing the backlog in our courts, as the rising number of cases discourages many lawyers from accepting court appointed matters.

"I look forward to working with the Legislature throughout the budget writing process to discuss what steps we can take to strengthen our legal system and the delivery of justice to all Maine citizens."

Big deal.


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