Gov. Janet Mills is proposing $17 million in new funding for public defenders and court-appointed defense attorneys as part of the $10.3 billion state budget plan she unveiled Wednesday.
The additional money marks a significant shift in her administration’s stance toward public defense and includes $3.6 million to hire 10 public defenders. This is in addition to five public defenders who were recently hired by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, that is responsible for overseeing lawyers appointed by the court to defend people who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer.
Mills said she is “anxious to see” how the five public defenders fare amid her offer to more than double the number of public defenders in the next state budget.
Maine is obligated by the federal Constitution to pay for a lawyer for adults charged with crimes at risk of jail who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. The state constitution extends that right to other vulnerable people, including people in mental health crises being held at hospitals, juveniles and parents under investigation for allegations of child abuse or neglect.
MCILS has a current budget of $28.1 million a year. It proposed a $62.1 million budget, with more than $33 million of new spending on public defender offices and new employees for training, supervision, assignment and screening as well as an internship program and student loan mitigation for contracted lawyers — much of which does not appear to have made it into the governor’s proposed budget.
“The number of things that the MCILS has brought forward — some of them are things that are doable currently; some of them, maybe long-term,” said Mills during a press conference Wednesday.
Mills’ $17 million proposal includes $13.2 million to create a plan for tiered hourly wages between $80 and $150 an hour for court-appointed attorneys based on the complexity of a case. Defense lawyers are currently reimbursed $80 an hour regardless of whether they worked on a low-level misdemeanor or a homicide.
“It’s definitely good that there’s an increase,” said state Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield), who is sponsoring a bill to raise court-appointed attorney wages to $150 an hour.
Keim said the state’s Judiciary Committee would need to look at the governor’s proposal and her own bill before it decides what to do. Keim’s bill was submitted with an emergency provision, which means it could take effect sooner than other bills if it gained enough support in the Legislature.
Mills said her budget is envisioned to gain approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. Republican leadership, including Keim, during their own press gathering Wednesday said that their goal was also to reach two-thirds support for the budget at the end of the appropriation’s process, though they are also asking to reduce taxes.
“We’ve been governing cautiously and I believe in a fiscally prudent manner,” Mills said.
Samantha Hogan covers the criminal justice system for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with other story ideas by email: email@example.com.