Mackenzie Deveau always knew Woodland was a small town. But it wasn’t until law school that she realized how few attorneys are in her hometown of 1,217 – and the impact it has on poor Mainers.

At last count five years ago, Aroostook County had just 70 active attorneys. Only about a dozen are currently accepting indigent cases.

It’s not enough to keep up with the thousands of defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. Attorneys from Bangor or Portland are often pulled in via Zoom for initial court appearances.

And the gap between rural Maine and the rest of the state is growing. More attorneys are practicing in Cumberland County than in all other counties combined, according to a 2018 report from the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar. Getting those attorneys to take cases outside of the big cities has been a challenge for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

That’s where Deveau comes in.

She has taken on roughly 50 cases in rural Maine since December, many near where she grew up. She’s part of the state’s first team of public defenders.


The five attorneys, known as the Rural Defender Unit, are focused solely on representing poor Mainers in Aroostook, Washington, and Penobscot counties. Their work is bolstered by a new law clinic at the University of Maine where student attorneys regularly serve as lawyers of the day in Fort Kent.

Commission leaders say the two groups have already helped alleviate some pressure on overwhelmed courts.

But the unit isn’t able to represent every person who needs an attorney. Hundreds are still going without immediate representation.

“For someone who’s arrested and put in jail, they have no voice or no understanding of how to navigate the system,” Deveau said. “It really is giving them a voice and helping them navigate the system, even explaining charges to them.”

And their ranks will soon expand: Maine lawmakers approved a budget that would add seven public defense positions to the state.



Deveau is in Aroostook County one to two weeks out of every month. Her clients have her direct phone number. She still uses Zoom when she must, but the Rural Defender Unit prioritizes in-person appearances.

“We do make an effort to show clients that this is our entire focus,” Deveau said.

Private attorneys don’t take as many appointments, and it’s harder for them to make trips north, she said.

“And their focus is not rural Maine, versus for us, it is rural Maine. That’s why we took the job.”

“Instead, what they get is someone who appears on a screen, a small talking head. It’s just completely inadequate,” said retired Caribou District Judge Dave Soucy, who now serves on the commission and oversees the UMaine law clinic. “It’s that personal contact, the careful listening, the giving-of-counseling aspect, you know.

“It’s not a technical thing at all. It’s very human. It involves person-to-person communication.”


The law school launched the rural practice clinic in January with funding from the state. Student attorneys regularly serve as lawyers of the day for criminal bail hearings. So far, they’ve helped more than 50 people in criminal and civil matters, according to programs director Christopher Northrop.

Emma Pooler, who worked at the clinic this spring, said their work meant some clients spent less time in jail, or less time confused about their case.

She said her ability to meet with her clients in person made a difference.

“You know, if someone’s looking at going to jail for two years or they’re looking at losing their kid, do they want to feel like their attorney isn’t making time for them?” Pooler said. “That’s their life. You want to make sure they’re feeling they have that connection with their attorney, that they can trust their attorney is going to do as much as they can to help them.”


The Rural Defender Unit is only taking criminal cases, but there’s plenty of work to be done.


More than 27,800 indigent cases have been opened so far this fiscal year, ranging from felonies and misdemeanors to appeals, civil commitments, and probation violations. And the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services is still depending on mostly private attorneys. As of mid-June, there were a little more than 200 rostered attorneys, 165 of whom were available for trial-level work.

The lion’s share of indigent cases, about 48%, are out of York, Cumberland, and Penobscot counties – as are the rostered attorneys. Finding lawyers willing to represent the more than 2,200 open cases in Aroostook and Washington counties as of June 9 often proves to be difficult.

In Aroostook County on Friday, there were no attorneys accepting cases for sex offenses, most felonies, drug offenses, or domestic violence. There were only two attorneys available for homicide cases and one for drunken driving offenses, according to a recent roster MCILS produced.

Cumberland County had more than 35 attorneys accepting cases for adult criminal offenses, and in York County, there were more than 20.

Data on how many cases the Rural Defender Unit has worked on since its formation was not available Friday after multiple requests from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

Pooler, who is also from the St. John Valley, said the Rural Defender Unit and the clinic had an immediate impact on the small community of Fort Kent. The people of Aroostook County deserve competent legal services just as much as someone living in a bigger city, she said.



By creating new public defense positions, Maine is creating lawyers where they didn’t exist a year ago, and a new way of practicing law in the state.

Toby Jandreau took over the Rural Defender Unit in early June. He doesn’t accept cases, but he’s leading the unit. He had spent the last decade at his private firm in the St. John Valley, doing what he could to fill a serious need by accepting court-appointed cases.

Jandreau sees the new Rural Defender Unit as the beginning of the commission’s reinvestment in rural courts and said it is making a difference. He suspects these efforts will prompt some attorneys to relocate to rural towns permanently.

“Having these RDU lawyers who are young, who are willing to fight the fight, that’s been amazing,” Jandreau said. “I’m hoping that this is one of those things that starts to reverse the trend, in the long term.”

The newly approved state budget would add almost a dozen new staff to the commission, including another rural defender. It will also create a more traditional public defender unit, with six attorneys, two paralegals, and a legal assistant. The commission is still determining the scope of what the new office will handle and where it will be set up, MCILS Executive Director Jim Billings said in a recent interview.


The Legislature also funded a second deputy director position at MCILS’ central office.

MCILS is still firming up the process for how rural defenders are assigned cases, Jandreau said. Right now, they take what they can from a list of unrepresented cases in rural counties.

But even with so many cases coming in every day, the commission is preparing to implement a new system to limit caseloads for attorneys to make sure each defendant is getting adequate counsel. Those protections will eventually extend to the staffed public defenders, Jandreau said.

For Deveau, the rural defender unit environment has offered her more of a “united front” environment. She and her colleagues convene weekly to brainstorm and strategize cases. They give each other advice, watch the others’ hearings and read their motions.

“I’m able to talk to them and get recharged,” Deveau said. “I’m able to talk to them, and not feel like, ‘Am I crazy for thinking this was wrong? Or, am I crazy for thinking that this motion would work?'”

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