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Public Defender Proposal For Maine Could Start In Three Counties With Non-Profit Corporation Model

A group examining a public defender system in Maine is expected to advocate using New Hampshire as a model to follow, with a non-profit corporation contracted by the state to defend poor clients facing criminal charges.

Stock photo: PIxabay

The idea is favored by a subcommittee of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS). The subcommittee has been looking at The Granite State's system of indigent defense as well as Massachusetts' state-run public defender organization, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS). New Hampshire's contracted non-profit corporation - which acts as a large law firm independent of the state - is the one preferred and is to be their recommendation when it reports at end of the month (February 25).

Commissioner Ronald Schneider, Esq. said he and other subcommittee members felt "that is the model that we think could work the best." The New Hampshire Public Defender was established in 1972 as a pilot project of NH Legal Assistance. It has existed as a stand-alone institution since 1985.

The same MCILS subcommittee is suggesting that up to three counties - Cumberland, Kennebec, and Penobscot - could be the first to roll out the idea, with others to follow. The subcommittee includes representatives of the ACLU of Maine, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and members of the Commission.

Commissioner Robert Cummins, Esq. said it was likely there would be a “backlash” and "negative reaction" to the public defender recommendation from both the legal community and the public generally. However, he felt this would change once the idea is more fully explained and shown to be needed to fully comply with constitutional law.

The idea still has a way to go before it is ever a reality. It would still need to be recommended by MCILS, and ultimately approved by the Maine legislature. Although MCILS would have the current authority to simply contract this work to another organization, there was consensus at a Commissioners' meeting (February 11) that lawmakers would also need to be behind it.

"I don’t think we need to have new legislation or rule but clearly we would need legislative buy-in," said Mr. Schneider.

The public defender idea is part of a potential overhaul of the way criminal defense is provided to indigent defendants - those who have a court-appointed lawyer because they can't afford one. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a court-appointed lawyer for the indigent under the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case from 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright.

It was criticism of the current method of private-appointed attorneys that was criticized by the Boston watchdog, the Sixth Amendment Center in a report published last April. The group also said those who take assigned cases should be paid more. However, over-simplistic press coverage has painted attorneys as bilking taxpayers.

The Commission has also been examining the Lawyer of the Day program, improvements in standards for assigned counsel panels, better training, and ways of tweaking financial oversight of the existing system.

The Commission went into executive (closed) session to discuss potential litigation over a "whistleblower"-type action over financial issues, though this was only discussed very briefly and in very general terms in the public part of the session. No details were given about any allegations that have been made.

The full February 11 meeting of the Commission can be heard here.


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