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May 14, 2024

PORTLAND – An ACLU of Maine report shows the number of people denied their Sixth Amendment right to an attorney has skyrocketed, growing 497% over the past six months. The report comes as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has allowed the organization’s related lawsuit against the state to return to trial.

Maine Law Court Denies State’s Appeal, Allows Case to Proceed

The ACLU of Maine sued the state in 2022 for failing to uphold people’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Following extensive settlement negotiations, the Kennebec County Superior Court earlier this year ordered the case to return to trial. The ACLU of Maine filed expanded claims on March 8 against the state to address the ways that the system has deteriorated since the original case filing.

On March 15, the state appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to reverse the Kennebec County Superior Court’s decision to send the case back to trial. Maine’s highest court rejected the state’s appeal on May 1, holding that it was impermissible.

ACLU of Maine Analysis Shows Worsening Crisis

As litigation proceeds, this crisis is worsening. The ACLU of Maine’s analysis of public court records shows the number of people denied their right to an attorney has risen from 106 to 633 in just six months. Of those, 144 are currently in custody with no legal representation. Additionally, 373 people have been denied an attorney for at least 30 days.

The effects of this crisis are not felt equally throughout the state. Some counties account for a small percentage of Maine’s population but a significant percentage of those who have been denied their right to counsel. For instance, Penobscot County accounts for just 11% of the state’s population, yet it has 36% of the unrepresented cases, as of May 8, 2024. These trends align with higher prosecution rates. Of the five counties with the highest prosecution rates, three also have the highest rates of people facing charges without an attorney, based on data spanning November 1, 2023, to May 8, 2024.

“This report shows a dire crisis that is getting worse by the day,” said ACLU of Maine Legal Director Carol Garvan. “Being incarcerated, even for a short time, is detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. Even under the best of circumstances, people in jails have limited or no access to necessary services such as medical care, mental health care, and substance use disorder treatment. These consequences can be made even worse when people do not have access to effective assistance of counsel.”

“We appreciate that the Law Court has allowed this case to proceed to trial,” said ACLU of Maine Chief Counsel Zach Heiden. “At trial, we intend to prove that Maine is not meeting its Sixth Amendment responsibilities. A person’s liberty and experience in the legal system should never depend on their wealth."