A Boston-based nonprofit group was recently tasked with assessing Maine’s public criminal defense system and, in their report, urged lawmakers to fund a Cumberland County public defender’s office and a statewide office that would assist indigent criminal defendants in their appeals.
Currently, Maine is the only state that provides private attorneys to all criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney. A large number these private attorneys make the $60/hour fee structure work. However, this less-than-adequate compensation calls into question the quality of representation when “making it work” is the norm.
The absence of a public defender’s office in Maine has always been an obstacle to improving the quality of representation for the indigent defendant. So long as we hold hundreds of solo-practitioners responsible for providing effective representation without oversight, coordination or reasonable compensation, we will not see change. Simply put, a financially stressed attorney is an under-performing attorney.
A public defender's office, in addition to providing attorneys with a living wage, would provide the training and mentorship that the state currently lacks, and could become an advocate for policy proposals and appellate litigation. This would dramatically improve individual representation and advance the development of criminal law in Maine. The Boston group makes an excellent recommendation to boost the base hourly rate and increase rates further for cases that are more complex of require higher level expertise.
The institution of a public defender’s office would also result in collateral damage for the current roster of private attorneys in the current system. Roughly one-third would find themselves out of work - hardly a fair outcome for attorneys who have spent years serving indigent clients, learning the craft and cobbling together small firms that can survive on $60/hour.
Clearly, any of the solutions that ultimately must be implemented (and funded) in order to create a more viable system will require careful planning to ensure that both the clients who must be served, and the attorneys who serve them, are treated with respect and consideration for the realities of their lives and circumstances.
What do you think about the addition of a public defender’s office in Maine? Read more about the report and input from other Maine attorneys here.