If you’ve ever watched a court or cop show on TV, you know this line well: “You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford one, one will be provided to you.”
The 6th Amendment guarantees all people accused of a crime the right to counsel during their proceedings, and the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright further ensures that people who can’t afford an attorney – the indigent – will be provided one by the state.
On April 4, the Sixth Amendment Center – an independent organization dedicated to upholding that very right – released a report on the current state of 6th Amendment protections in Maine.
Spoiler alert: Maine didn’t do well.
The report outlines several ways Maine is failing to meet its obligations under the 6th Amendment. It goes on to make several recommendations for improving Maine’s system and bringing it in line with the Constitution. This includes:
Improving the structure of Maine’s system:
- Make sure a defendant’s actual counsel is present at arraignment, and not just the court’s “lawyer of the day.”
- Set higher requirements for attorneys able to provide indigent defense, making sure only lawyers capable of providing high-quality defense are on the list.
- Require attorneys to keep records of their cases and perform regular audits of these record.
- Require lawyers to review discovery and talk to clients before entering a plea.
- Ensure attorneys are not overbilling for their services.
- Ensure attorneys who are not providing adequate counsel are removed from the indigent defense system.
And, improving the supports provided to the system:
- Establish a state office of the public defender with staff lawyers that can provide mentorship and training to private attorneys aiding in indigent defense.
- Hold regular, high-quality trainings for lawyers providing indigent defense.
- Increase the pay for attorneys providing indigent defense.
- Build support for indigent defense through a state official dedicated to addressing criminal defense issues.
The right to counsel is central to a fair and just legal system, and access to justice should never depend on how much money you have. The key takeaway from the Sixth Amendment Center report is that Maine can and must do better. For more on its proposed recommendations, check out this post and the full report on the Sixth Amendment Center site.