The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, an embattled body this editorial board has written about critically on numerous occasions in recent years, is no more.

A measure signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills last Thursday renames the quasi-state agency the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services. That’s the least important provision contained in the emergency legislation from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which provides for the creation of two new public defenders offices and 22 new positions for public defender offices in Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

The first dedicated office, which is to say the state’s first, serves Kennebec County and opened last year in Augusta. Until it opened, Maine was the only state in the nation without such an office, instead relying exclusively on private lawyers.

In recent years, fewer and fewer of those private lawyers were willing to take on the work of public defense. Even as the fee for taking cases was eventually raised (to $150 per hour from $80 per hour), the crisis showed no sign of abating.

What has resulted is scandalous: scores of Mainers languishing in jails for weeks or months without the effective legal support they are constitutionally entitled to.

Pressure to fix the system has been heaped on Maine by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the state for failing to uphold state and federal laws that require states to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire them (by one estimate, 80% of people charged with crimes cannot afford their own counsel). Last year, the commission was responsible for more than 32,000 new cases in Maine.

Pressure was also aggressively and repeatedly applied by the people tasked with leading the commission. “I’m hopeful that as we have finally arrived at the point of failure, the Legislature will recognize what it needs to do,” the former executive director of the Commission on Indigent Legal Services, Justin Andrus, said back in August of 2022.

Robert Cummins, the commissioner in the role before Andrus, sounded many alarms in his April 2022 resignation letter to Gov. Mills that he believed the sustained neglect of the system seemed to “boil down to an ‘I just don’t give a damn’ attitude.”

After a few false starts, the Mills administration now appears to be firmly on the right track. By instituting a new system of state-employed lawyers and beginning to commit the necessary funding and resources to it, Maine appears to have started to give a damn about guaranteed legal representation for all. It’s about time.

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