The state has run out of funding to pay court-appointed attorneys representing criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.

John Pelletier, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said that after this week, court-appointed attorneys will have to wait until July 1 to be paid for representing indigent defendants.

Pelletier said the Legislature did not appropriate $2.8 million in stop-gap funding for the commission.

The funding gap was created when legislators chose to under-fund the commission for the fiscal year ending June 30 with the intention of providing additional money in the supplemental budget.

Lawmakers approved roughly $15.5 million for indigent defense this year in the prior biennial budget, down from the roughly $18.4 million the commission said was needed to fund 12 months of work.

“It wasn’t alarming at the time, because the feedback we had at the time from the Legislature was that they would through the supplemental budget process fill the hole that they acknowledged they were creating,” Pelletier said.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 to approve the stop-gap measure and sent it to the appropriations committee, which stripped it out of the 2017 supplemental spending plan, Pelletier said.

Unlike some states, Maine does not employ public defenders. Instead, the court appoints private attorneys for people who meet certain income requirements, thus fulfilling the constitutional obligation to provide legal counsel to criminal defendants.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re not going to be able to (fully fund the work) in the next few months,” Pelletier said. “But from the long perspective, it’s not the first time lawyers doing this work have had to wait more than 60 days to get their bills paid.”

Before the commission was created through statute in 2010, Pelletier said, the system for paying attorneys was slower. Today, attorneys submit bills to the commission through an electronic system and the commission reconciles the bills.

State-appointed attorneys are paid $60 per hour.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, attorneys were appointed in 26,100 cases. The average cost to defend each case was roughly $530, but the cost can be much higher.

The commission has run out of funding before, most recently in 2013, but the Legislature acted in time to fund the shortfall before the end of the fiscal year, Pelletier said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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