State officials said they are barely keeping up with the demand for lawyers to represent the poor in criminal and family cases, even as Maine takes gradual steps to shed its status as the only state without a public defense system.

Maine’s first five public defenders began working on criminal cases late last year, and last Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills proposed funding for 10 more attorneys. But Justin Andrus, who heads the agency that coordinates indigent legal services, said adding a few public defenders isn’t a sustainable way to staff cases and won’t fix the court backlog.

“The reality is that five people can’t realistically solve the problem at the systems level,” said Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS.

As Mills was putting the finishing touches on his budget proposal last week, an email was sent to lawyers that highlighted the continuing shortage of indigent clients. Twenty-seven adults, minors, and parents needed lawyers on January 9, and the courts were unable to find anyone to represent them.

That same day there were just 64 attorneys accepting adult criminal cases and 72 attorneys accepting child protection cases statewide, according to MCILS. At its peak five years ago, MCILS had more than 400 contract attorneys.

MCILS was formed by the Legislature in 2009 to take responsibility from judges for overseeing and paying for defense attorneys assigned to represent adults and children charged with a crime who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. Judges still decide if a defendant financially qualifies for a lawyer at state expense and makes the initial appointment.

Judges and court clerks have been unable to find enough lawyers available to serve indigent clients immediately since late last year, the Monitor reported. The courts have seen no improvement since then, said Barbara Cardone, a spokeswoman for the court system.

“Whether it has gotten worse or stayed the same is hard to gauge, but we are fighting to clear the backlog of criminal cases without additional attorneys,” Cardone wrote in an email Thursday.

A bipartisan coalition of state legislators in 2022 funded a “Rural Advocate Unit” that would send MCILS-employed public defenders to areas of the state without enough attorneys. Mills, a Democrat, announced an additional $3.6 million Wednesday to add another 10 public defender jobs as part of her proposed $10.3 billion state budget.

The five public defenders absorbed most of the criminal cases that MCILS knew were without attorneys as of late December 2022, but Andrus said the arrival of the attorneys was a “fortuitous” timing and not a sustainable way to staff the cases.

“Sustainable implies to me that there is going to be a foreseeable period in which the available resources are up to the task of dealing with the number of available cases. We have built a small reserve of capacity, and the fact that we are funneling some of the caseload into that capacity does not mean sustainability unless capacity grows, or system inputs decrease, or both,” Andrus said.

Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, said he is also “extremely concerned” about the decline in attorneys accepting new assignments for indigent cases.

The five public defenders are a start, he said, though “that’s not enough to scratch the surface.”

To attract attorneys who will take cases and also provide a cost-of-living adjustment to run their businesses amid inflation, Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, introduced an emergency bill to increase the salaries of appointed private attorneys. by the court from $80 to $150 per hour. . If approved by the Legislature, the emergency provision would allow the increase to be implemented before other bills.

A $473 million heating relief bill passed by the Legislature cannibalized money that might have been available to fund his bill, Keim said.

“It takes money, and we just spent it all,” Keim told The Maine Monitor.

The US Constitution requires Maine to pay for a lawyer for adults accused of crimes who are at risk of jail time and who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.

MCILS has a current budget of $28.1 million per year. The commission proposed an annual budget of $62.1 million, with more than $33 million of new spending on public defender offices, more employees, an internship program and student loan mitigation for contract attorneys.

The governor’s budget proposal included $17 million in new spending, just over half of what MCILS was seeking, to create a tiered salary plan based on the complexity of the case and add public defender positions. Lawmakers will work on the budget, which directs the next two years of state spending.

Cardone said the judiciary is waiting to see when the Legislature will address the court’s need for resources. She pointed to the governor’s budget proposal, the legislation and House Speaker Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, comments on Maine Public Radio that supporting access to justice is a top priority.

“By making sure that people have access to justice and that our courts have the security and capacity to deal with this incredible backlog, that we will get there. I have no doubt that we will get there, and we will get there soon,” Talbot-Ross said during his appearance on “Maine Calling.”

Meagan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine, said the Legislature needs to take a comprehensive look at all issues.

“It requires a systemic approach and it requires not only addressing the shortage of lawyers and the way we appoint them. It requires looking at the number of cases. It requires looking at the right to a speedy trial and whether it’s available to Maine citizens, and it’s not,” Sway said.

Also looming is a Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision on speedy trial rights.

Attorneys for the ACLU of Maine and MCILS filed amicus briefs in support of changing the state’s legal test for when a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. The justices heard arguments in Dennis Winchester v. State of Maine in October and have yet to issue a written decision. That could have major implications for backlogged criminal cases.

Andrus said he fears that some people in the government and the courts expect the five public defenders to fix more than they reasonably can.

There are also gaps in the coverage that new public defenders can provide. None of the attorneys have the training or experience to work on child protection cases to provide legal assistance to parents accused of child abuse or neglect, Andrus said.

“I am deeply concerned that… there will be pressure for them to take more cases than is reasonable and I intend to do everything I can to get in the way of that pressure so they can do their job, which is to stay client focused. . Andrus said.

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization. For regular coverage from Monitor, sign up here for a free Monitor newsletter.