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Poor Defendants With No Lawyer Tops 600 And Rising

Analysis Graph

Poor criminal defendants without an attorney in Maine has topped 600 for the first time.

After the number of cases and unrepresented individuals began to level off after months of increases, the number had begun to increase again. The analysis shows that on April 16, 2024, at least 150 of the 622 unrepresented clients are in custody. This is double what it was in early January. The number of unrepresented individuals has doubled since mid-February.

On Friday, April 19, the number went up again. It now stands at 630 individuals, of which at least 163 are in custody, with 806 cases.

This year, the only time these numbers have gone down was a week in January and two weeks between March and early April. Other than that, the trajectory has only been up.

In these cases, a judge has already determined that these individuals are entitled to have a defense attorney appointed at public expense. That is because of a landmark case from the 1960s. Maine's Law Court also provides state-funded attorneys under the state's own constitution for cases involving a potential loss of parental rights and other types of cases.

This practice has been keeping track of spreadsheets distributed by the Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services (MCILS) from courts seeking lawyers to take court appointments,

Even Cumberland and York counties, the most populous counties in Maine, saw a growing number of defendants without an attorney. Aroostook County, which has traditionally had a shortage of all attorneys, is the worst affected.

This blog has previously reported that the number of available defense attorneys taking cases has continued to fall, and plummeted from its peak. The system needs hundred of lawyers to function properly - the vast majority of which are private attorneys appointed by a court.

A recent editorial in the Sunday Telegram, sister paper of the Portland Press Herald, claimed that a new name for the agency that oversees court-appointed criminal defense attorneys and new public defender offices with 22 additional salaried attorneys meant the issue had "turned a corner." It will take considerably more than that for this issue to be resolved. By way of example, Oregon - which has a population more than three times that of Maine - has said it needs 500 additional salaried public defenders to deal with a backlog in that state. It has just over 500 already.

The same editorial in the Maine Sunday Telegram said that the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services was "responsible" for more than 30,000 cases annually. The cases are brought against defendants by The State of Maine's district attorneys and their assistants or deputies. MCILS's 'responsibility' is only to provide defense attorneys for cases they do not prosecute.

A lawsuit was filed against MCILS by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which obtained class action for several unrepresented clients. Both the ACLU and MCILS have now proposed two settlements and the second has now also just been rejected by the presiding judge in that matter. A trial is expected in June.

This lawsuit followed months of repeated critical coverage of defense attorneys by 'news' outlets such as The Maine Monitor, which has since moved on. As of the time of writing, its last story on this issue was in October, 2023.

A Rural Defender Unit was set up by MCILS consisting of a handful of salaried public defenders to also deal with some of these issues.


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