The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine will today call on the Legislature to include significant new funding and structural reforms in the state’s two-year budget.

“These investments represent considerably more than this state is accustomed to spending on indigent defense, but they should not be mistaken for luxury,” said Zach Heiden, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maine. “This is the bare minimum funding required to have a functioning indigent defense system, and, by extension, a functioning criminal justice system. This is the cost of bringing Maine into compliance with the United States Constitution.”

Maine’s Commission on Indigent Legal Services is in crisis, denying justice to low-income people accused of a crime.

Maine currently has four public defenders, working in Augusta. They are responsible for providing legal services in rural underserved areas of the state. The current budget would increase that number to 15 public defenders, all based in one office in Augusta and responsible for 35,000 square miles.

“This plan is plainly in adequate,” Heiden said. “It is not a long-term solution to the current indigent defense crisis; it is not a short-term solution either.”

The ACLU of Maine is calling for the Legislature to increase funding for indigent legal defense to ensure that lawyers assigned to people facing criminal charges have been appropriately screened, trained, evaluated, supervised and supported.

This includes funding for: public defender offices in each of Maine’s eight prosecutorial districts; two statewide defense units to handle appeals and post-conviction review cases; increasing the MCILS capacity to provide training, oversight, attorney evaluation and supervision; increasing the hourly rate for appointed counsel to $150/hour; and meaningful in-person trainings and IT support. 

“Maine is not living up to its constitutional obligation to guarantee the assistance of counsel to people who have been accused of crimes but who cannot afford an attorney,” Heiden said.

Heiden will testify this afternoon before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs.