Indigent murder defendants driving up costs for state

Posted Aug. 09, 2011, at 10:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services rejected a request to find $260,000 in savings in their budget and plan to ask for an additional $1 million in state funds to get through the current budget year.

“We don’t have any control whatsoever over when people commit crimes or when the state decides to prosecute someone,” Ron Schneider, chairman of the commission, said in an interview. “Our obligation is to provide those people, if they are indigent, with an attorney. That is a constitutional obligation that we have.”

He said the commission was underfunded from its creation and with an increasing caseload — including expensive murder cases — the need for funding has grown. He said his staff’s best estimate is that another $1 million will be needed to get through the current budget year. He is concerned the estimate may be conservative and that the shortfall will be larger. The yearly budget for the commission is about $10 million.

“With just four people in the central office staff and five people working in courthouses, we are about as efficient as you can get,” Schneider told fellow commission members. “There is nothing, just nothing excessive about our budget.”

The action was no surprise to Gov. Paul LePage’s legal counsel, Dan Billings. He said even though the governor and Legislature provided some additional funds in the budget for the commission, they knew the agency could run short.

“We will look at what the real need is recognizing that some of the costs are out of our control,” he said in an interview.

Billings said he did not expect the commission could meet the target set forth in the streamlining task force process, but all agencies that receive General Fund money have a target amount and need to respond to the task force.

“It was basically a target to begin discussions,” he said. “We do not expect they will be the only agency that will come back and say it will be difficult to meet the target.”

The panel decided to send a memo to Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett with the facts of the commission budget and why they do not believe they can find any savings. Schneider said the commission will seek a supplemental appropriation to get through the budget year when the process for drafting that budget gets underway.

Commission member Ken Spirer during the meeting that the panel needs to “hammer home” the constitutional obligation to provide poor people with lawyers when they are charged with crimes.

Schneider agreed, and said it is difficult to project costs for the legal services. He said the cost of providing a lawyer to a family where the state is seeking to take custody of their children is far different than a murder case.

“A murder case can blow a hole in the budget,” he said. “They can be very expensive.”

Also complicating the budgeting is that a number of defendants are found to be “partially indigent” and are asked to pay some of the cost of their defense. Currently, court clerks are collecting those payments and processing them. That is supposed to change next July and clerks will forward the payments to the commission for processing.

“We will most likely need at least one additional full-time staff member,” said Jennifer Smith, central office manager of the commission. “It will be more than a full-time job to process the checks through the system, send out past due notices, make the deposits of the collections and track all of that.”

Steve Carey, the commission’s deputy executive director, said there are ongoing talks with the judicial branch to provide for ongoing cooperation in the collection of payments after the responsibility shifts to the commission.

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