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Rise In Criminal Cases And Fall In Defense Attorneys Worsens In Maine

West Bath District Court

Fewer criminal defense attorneys are willing to take cases against clients unable to afford a lawyer while the number of criminal cases in Maine has increased, according to a state commission.

Maine relies on private counsel to give indigent defendants the lawyer they are constitutionally entitled to have if they cannot afford one. There has been a continuing fall in the number of those private attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases according to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS), which is tasked with the job of providing lawyers to poor clients accused of criminal offenses. The fall in the number of rostered attorneys and rise in the number of cases has been covered on this blog.

In a report to commissioners, MCILS executive director Justin Andrus said that in a comparison between August 6, 2021, and the same date last year, there has been a 23.1% rise in the number of felony cases, and a 8.9% rise for misdemeanors. In some counties the increase is far steeper. In Penobscot county, there has been a 75% increase in felony cases.

In the fiscal year 2015 there were just under 25,500 cases. In the 2020 fiscal year there was nearly 27,800. MCILS predicts that with the current increase, the 2022 fiscal year could see upwards of 31,000 to 33,000 cases.

At the same time, MCILS says there has been a "second phase of attrition" of attorneys who are taking themselves off of rosters for court-appointed cases. At a meeting of commissioners on Monday August 30, 2021 said there has been a fall from about 430 to about 255 attorneys who take rostered cases.

Anecdotally, Mr. Andrus said the commission is "crossing a rubicon" because while every case has been assigned an attorney, there is starting to be increasing difficulty with finding lawyers for cases. He mentioned difficulties getting one case assigned an attorney.

Courts are returning to in person appearances, rather than be done on platforms such as Zoom, which means defense attorneys have to travel to multiple courts. Email filing of motions has stopped, which means sending by mail - which can take about five business days. Motions by attorneys to appear remotely, which is allowed by court rule, are also being denied.

MCILS is trying to address these issues with the judiciary, but he said emails about these issues are not being acknowledged or responded to to improve the difficulties of defense attorneys. "It's not going to work if we don't have a conversation and we don't have some changes," said Mr. Andrus.

At the commission meeting, commissioner Ronald Schneider said the system is "in crisis" and "getting worse" with a risk of collapse if issues are not addressed.

  • In a separate issue, commissioner Robert Cummins said he apologized for asking attorneys to "suck it up" in February when told about plummeting morale among defense attorneys. He said he did not appreciate the workload of those currently rostered.


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