If there’s any area where Janet Mills is an expert, it’s the criminal justice system. Mills served as attorney general for eight years after being a district prosecutor for 19 years.

That’s why it’s puzzling that as the state’s indigent defense system crumbles around her, Mills stands idly by.

In April 2019, the Sixth Amendment Center found that poor defendants in Maine “routinely plead guilty without speaking to a lawyer and attorneys are not always meeting with incarcerated clients,” violating their constitutional rights.

Between then and now, lawmakers have tried to act. In October 2020, commissioners recommended an increase of $35.4 million to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services budget, which would have created two public defender offices. Mills said no. The Legislature passed a pared-down budget of $18.5 million to raise per-hour attorney pay from $60 to $80 – the commission now says it needs $150. Mills let the bill become law but wouldn’t sign it.

We’ve now reached the hair-on-fire moment. Over the summer, at least 20 defendants in Aroostook County were “deprived of their constitutional right to counsel” for a combined total of 1,300 days, according to the commission. Commission director Justin Andrus declared in August that the system had reached its “point of failure.” A total of 11,600 open cases are being handled by just 33 attorneys – that’s an absurd average caseload of about 350. (In New Hampshire, case limits for public defenders are set at 70.) The commission in September requested an emergency reconvening of the Legislature to appropriate $13.3 million to adequately pay attorneys. Without it, experts say, the system may collapse.

The plea was met with familiar silence from the Blaine House. Until Monday, that is, when an email from Mills to the commission was included in a meeting agenda. In it, she suggested trying harder to recruit lawyers and implied support for relaxing attorney standards.


Are those seriously the governor’s solutions? To lower standards for representation and ask attorneys extra nicely?

I get that Mills is in an election year, and a special session might look bad. But Paul LePage has repeatedly indicated support for the creation of a statewide public defender office. We have a grave problem in Maine when LePage is more progressive on criminal justice than our Democratic governor.

Mills had a giant surplus of $1.2 billion to work with. She could have solved this problem. Instead, the governor added five rural defender positions for $1.2 million. Hiring for the positions was delayed because the Mills administration refused to pay defenders as much as prosecutors.

Bob Cummins, a longtime Portland attorney who served as a member of the commission, quit his post in March. He wrote in his resignation letter, “there are a host of reasons [for the lack of reform], but it seems to boil down to an ‘I just don’t give a damn’ attitude.”

I would like to ask Gov. Mills this question: Is he wrong?

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