The state is making a tough job even tougher: Maine legislators are repeatedly and unconscionably failing to give court-appointed attorneys the resources they need to advocate for poor people accused of crimes that carry a risk of imprisonment.

The Constitution requires the government to provide counsel to the estimated 80 percent of people charged with crimes who can’t afford a lawyer on their own. Some states employ public defenders. In Maine, private attorneys, vetted by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, are paid $60 an hour to take on criminal defense, juvenile defense, civil commitment and child protective cases.

But attorneys for low-income Mainers will go unpaid until July 1, because of a shortfall created when lawmakers approved $15.5 million for indigent defense for the fiscal year ending June 30, down from the $18.4 million recommended by the commission.

This isn’t the first financial crisis for the system. But the last time it ran out of money, in fiscal year 2013, legislators voted to fill in the gap. This year, that money was stripped from the supplemental budget.

And the program hasn’t gotten much love from the executive branch, either. In January, Gov. LePage – obviously still peeved at the rejection last year of his bill to replace the commission with a flat-rate contract system – disparaged the commission as “a ‘make work’ program for lawyers,” complained that costs were continuing to rise and called for “proper accountability.”

If the governor wants a better grasp on why the indigent defense commission’s expenses are going up, he could start by reading the funding request by John Pelletier, the commission’s executive director. Pelletier makes a valid case for higher funding, citing, among other factors, a resurgence in child abuse and neglect cases (which has been linked to the opioid crisis in Maine); “the increased prevalence of mental illness among defendants”; the need for defense counsel to analyze proliferating audio, video and cellphone location evidence, and the greater lawyer time and travel costs resulting from jail consolidation.

None of these factors is within the control of the state’s indigent defense program. And it’s not greed that attracts lawyers to a system in which their payments, after office rent, utilities and other costs, usually top out at around $10 an hour. Instead of putting up more roadblocks to justice, it’s time for policymakers to face the constitutional crisis they’ve created by depriving the neediest Mainers of the day in court to which all citizens are entitled.

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