Indigent legal services running out of money

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 10:02 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state commission charged with paying for attorneys to defend poor people charged with crimes and face jail time and representing low-income parents in danger of losing their children could run out of money in May.

John Pelletier, executive director of Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, told members of the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that it not only can’t cut $98,000 form its budget, but the commission needs back two-thirds of the money cut from its budget last year in order to pay its bills through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“When the supplemental budget was passed last year, $600,000 was cut from our budget,” Pelletier said Thursday in a phone interview. “Based on our second-quarter data [which ended Dec. 31], our best estimate of anticipated costs through the end of FY 11 is the need for an additional $400,000.”

Pelletier appeared before the Appropriations Committee in response to a request from Gov. Paul LePage that $98,000 be found in savings for the rest of the year. He told members that really wasn’t realistic since it appeared to have just enough money to get through May.

The commission was established by the Legislature in 2009. Last July, it took over payments from the court system to attorneys who represent indigent defendants facing jail time and parents who are in danger of losing their parental rights because of abuse or neglect.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, and Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee said Friday that the commission is young and it is still figuring out how best to manage its operation.

“For Maine, this is still in many ways an experiment,” the senator said. “There’s no question about the requirement to provide representation, but I’m hoping the commission will be open to a review of their processes and be open to looking at ways to manage fiscal impact of indigent legal defense [on the general fund].”

Rosen said it was too early in the budget process to decide what, if any, additional money would go to the commission.

“[Pelletier] is going to come back to us with more information,” he said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, indigent defendants facing jail or prison time have been entitled to legal representation.

That means lawyers must be paid for by the government, either state or federal, that is bringing the charges. The state also pays lawyers to represent poor parents who face the loss of their children because of alleged abuse or neglect and lawyers to act as guardians ad litem — who remained under the supervision and in the budget of the judiciary — to represent the interests of the children.

While the reason for creating the commission included providing independent oversight of the delivery of indigent counsel services and improving the quality of representation, a driving force was money. The report that recommended creating the commission concluded it was impossible for the court system to predict how much money would be needed each year to pay attorneys, creating a drain on the judiciary.

Leigh I. Saufley said two years ago that the indigent defense fund “cannibalizes” the rest of the judiciary budget because it was not separate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/01/28/news/indigent-legal-services-running-out-of-money/ printed on December 20, 2014