AUGUSTA — A former Maine chief justice said something has to happen to ensure adequate funding and representation for poor people tried for crimes in Maine.

More resources are needed regardless whether the state sticks with the current system or creates a public defender office, Daniel Wathen said.

Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Either an assigned counsel system or a public defender system can work. Both have advantages and disadvantages. But under either scenario, it requires adequate funding that the system has never experienced,” he told The Associated Press.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services held a public hearing last week as the panelists prepare a series of proposals to address the effectiveness of the state’s current system to provide legal defense to Maine’s poor.

That system is under new scrutiny for lax oversight of the billing practices by the private attorneys commissioned to defend low-income clients.

A scathing report released in April detailed significant shortcomings.

All states are required to provide an attorney to people who are unable to afford their own lawyer under a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Maine is the only one of them that hires and assigns private attorneys to what are known as “indigent” cases. All other states now meet the requirement through some version of a public defender’s office and a staff of attorneys.

Alison Beyea, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the April report by the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center found that the system is failing indigent clients.

“The state has no mechanism in place for sorting the good from the bad, or for giving remedial training to the lawyers who are underqualified to do their job,” she said.

She pointed out that the ACLU has sued in other states for changes. But the ACLU is optimistic that the commission can make changes to avoid legal action.

In the 2018 fiscal year, Maine spent more than $21 million statewide to provide court-appointed counsel to Maine’s poor. The commission’s spending has nearly doubled in the nine years since it began overseeing several hundred private defense attorneys.

Pine Tree Watch, a nonprofit news service, launched an investigation and found that $2.2 million in potential overbilling by private attorneys.


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