If you want to understand why Maine has a problem with its system for providing legal representation to the poor, you need to look at a few numbers.

Such as:

• 30,000 – the number of criminal court cases in Maine every year involving defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.
• 600 – the number of lawyers in private practice assigned to represent them.
• 47 – the number of courthouses, scattered between York and Fort Kent, where the cases are heard.
• 3 – the number of people assigned to train, supervise and evaluate all those lawyers in all those cases.

That’s right. Just three.

Those numbers add up to a system where people who cannot afford a lawyer risk being sent to jail because they are represented by underpaid, inexperienced and overworked attorneys, or worse, who enter into plea negotiations with prosecutors without any lawyer representing them at all.

That’s why the Legislature is again being asked to overhaul its indigent legal services, which have been criticized for being inadequate for nearly 50 years.

In just the last two years, there have been studies by the independent Sixth Amendment Center and the state’s own watchdog agency, Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Together the two reports paint a picture of a system that is not serving either the criminal defendants facing life-changing involvement with the justice system or Maine taxpayers, who are spending millions of dollars inefficiently.

In testimony last week before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, recommended doubling the size of the agency that oversees criminal defense for the poor as well as creating a statewide public defender’s office for appeals, and another to represent defendants in trials in the state’s busiest courts, starting with Cumberland County.

The center also recommends increasing the fee paid to court-appointed lawyers from $60 an hour to $100, while cracking down on potential over-billing.

This kind of sweeping reform is long overdue. Maine is not meeting its constitutional obligations now, and we should not wait to lose a class-action lawsuit before we take action. Bills are before the Legislature this year that would implement the Sixth Amendment Center’s recommendations, and they should be made law.

In the landmark 1962 decision Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court determined that every defendant who faces jail time is entitled to a lawyer even if they can’t afford to pay one.

It’s a hugely important right that affects many others.

The criminal justice system is complicated. Watching court shows on TV won’t prepare an ordinary person facing jail time to know what’s admissible in court, evaluate how a jury might view the strength of the state’s evidence against them or weigh a prosecutor’s plea offer against sentences in similar cases.

The Constitution says that we are all equal under the law, but that can’t be true if some of us have a lawyer by our side when we are charged with a crime and others have to go it alone.

Forty-nine states meet this constitutional obligation with a public defender’s office, where lawyers employed by the state represent people who can’t afford to hire one. Maine alone has a system that exclusively relies on private attorneys who are assigned to cases by judges and paid by the case. Since 2009, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, with its staff of three, has been in charge of overseeing the lawyers and paying them.

There are reasons why this system is not used elsewhere.

According to the Sixth Amendment Center, there’s a built-in conflict of interest for a lawyer, if zealous defense of a client could anger a judge who will be handing out future assignments. But Maine’s problems are not limited to the structure of the system.

Lawyers can qualify for some court assignments as soon as they pass the bar. High-profile murder and sexual assault cases are assigned only to experienced lawyers, but a conviction for a minor crime can start a lifetime of involvement with the judicial system that has cascading consequences.

Aside from jail time, a conviction makes it hard to get a job or an apartment, and if the sentence includes probation, a defendant is at risk of going to jail for things like possession of alcohol that would not be crimes for anyone else.

Exacerbating the problem is the low pay rate for court-appointed lawyers – $60 per hour, which is not much for someone who needs to cover overhead for what is essentially a small business. This creates an incentive for lawyers to get cases resolved quickly so they can move on to another appointment, even if that is not in their client’s best interest.

There is no getting away from the fact that fixing the system will cost some money, but the Constitution doesn’t put a price tag on our fundamental rights.

Maine has been warned and warned again. The Legislature should not duck this problem any longer.

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