February 5, 2013

Our View: State should fund indigent defense budget

The state's court system can't function unless the state meets its constitutional obligations.

No one wants to think about what would happen if the state runs out of money to pay court-appointed lawyers. And it wouldn't just be bad news for lawyers.

If the state does not come up with an estimated $1.8 million by mid-April, there will be no money left to provide legal representation to people who can't afford it until the end of the fiscal year on June 30. That could mean that for 10 weeks, the state could not charge someone with a crime that carried a risk of jail if he could not afford his own lawyer.

Child abuse and neglect cases could not go forward against parents who couldn't pay. Indigent people with mental illness could not be committed to a hospital against their will. Low-income juveniles in trouble could not come before a judge.

The court system would be crippled.

That's what's at stake this spring as lawmakers try to fill holes all over an inadequate current-year budget while writing a new two-year budget that is already out of whack. There's not enough money to meet any of the state's other obligations, like adequate funding for schools and social services. Who advocates for lawyers for the poor?

Fortunately, the Constitution does that. The Supreme Court has found that the Sixth Amendment guarantees an attorney for all people accused of a crime, regardless of their ability to pay. The 14th Amendment guarantees all people equal protection under law. The state cannot meet its constitutional obligation without paying its defense lawyers.

Last year, the indigent defense budget ran out, but it was rescued by the governor, who bailed it out with emergency funds. This year, there are many other claims on the state's rainy day fund, putting pressure on lawmakers to meet all of Maine's obligations.

But even if the legal bill is paid before the money runs out, this is no way to run such an important government function.

Not only has the system come to the brink of running dry two years in a row, but when it is funded, it's not a sound system. Court-appointed lawyers are earning $50 an hour -- what they have been getting since 1999. That might sound like a comfortable wage to some, but operating as small-business people who have to pay staff, rent, utilities and other expenses out of their hourly wage, it's not enough.

Good lawyers are leaving the system, creating shortages, especially in rural areas. If the administration or the Legislature has a more efficient way to provide these services, they should say so. But not paying the bills is not a solution.

 

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