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Communications Director, ACLU of Maine
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March 21, 2024

LD 653 would fund two new public defender offices, increase staffing and training. 

AUGUSTA – The ACLU of Maine applauds the Maine State Legislature’s unanimous passage of emergency legislation to fund two public defender offices in areas of the state where high numbers of people accused of crimes must wait weeks and even months for attorneys to be assigned.

The bill will, among other things, establish public defender offices covering Aroostook, Piscataquis, and Penobscot Counties. It will also change the name of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to the Maine Commission on Public Defense Services and provide more staffing for the commission to establish new offices and train attorneys. Last year, Maine opened its first public defender office in Augusta.

“The current system denies countless people their Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel,” said ACLU of Maine Chief Counsel Zach Heiden. “For years, Maine has relied entirely on private attorneys to meet its public constitutional obligations, but finally that is starting to change. LD 653 is a significant step forward for ensuring people in Maine have effective counsel. We call on Governor Mills to sign LD 653 into law and for the legislature to continue building upon this by funding public defense offices in all prosecutorial districts.”

The ACLU of Maine will continue its Sixth Amendment lawsuit, Robbins v. MCILS. Although this measure is an important step forward, two new public defenders’ offices are not enough. The current constitutional crisis is not limited to Aroostook, Penobscot, and Piscataquis counties. There are over 500 indigent defendants currently waiting for appointment of counsel throughout Maine. Every one of these cases represents a failure of the state to meet its fundamental constitutional obligations. And merely having an attorney is not enough; the Constitution guarantees the effective assistance of counsel, which requires that attorneys be appropriately evaluated, trained, supervised, and supported.