BANGOR — Attorneys who take on indigent clients would get their first raise since 1999 in 2015 if the governor’s proposed budget is approved, but it is nowhere near what they need to meet expenses, they say.
Lawyers who defend people accused of crimes for which they face jail time are paid $50 per hour by the state. People who are in danger of losing their children and can’t afford to hire lawyers also qualify for court-appointed attorneys.
The Indigent Legal Defense Commission, which is responsible for maintaining rosters of attorneys who take court-appointed cases and paying them for their services, last year asked Gov. Paul LePage to raise lawyers’ pay to $70 an hour in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2014, and to $75 the following fiscal year.
“That is really just getting us to ground zero — even with the cost-of-living increase over the last 14 years,” David Mitchell, chairman of the commission, said Sunday.
The governor included a $5 raise in the hourly rate in the second year of his proposed biennium budget.
It’s not enough, the commission chairman said.
“The governor agrees that compensation is an issue for Indigent Legal Services, just like it is elsewhere in state government,” Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Monday in an email. “For example, a new assistant attorney general earns just over $40,000. He agreed to increase the amount for ILS since it has been so long, but he didn’t want to go too far while leaving others behind.”
Mitchell, who has a general law practice in Calais, said the commission began looking at the issue of a pay raise last year because experienced defense attorneys were taking their names off the rosters due to the low pay.
Richard Hartley of Bangor is one of the state’s more experienced criminal defense lawyers who no longer accepts state-appointed cases. He still takes on criminal defendants charged in federal court, which pays $125 an hour.
Hartley, who is the president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Friday that hourly rates charged by criminal defense attorneys in Maine range from a low of $150 to a high of $300, depending on where the attorney is located in the state and his or her experience and reputation.
“Since 1999, when the Legislature raised the rate from $40 to $50 an hour, costs have increased significantly,” Hartley, who has a general practice, said. “The federal rate has kept pace with the cost of doing business, the state rate has not.”
Many of the attorneys who take court-appointed cases are not in large firms and, in essence, operate a small business, Mitchell said. They must pay for office space, staff, rent, paper, telephones and Internet service as well as liability and malpractice insurance.
Jeffrey Silverstein, a well-known criminal defense attorney in Bangor, still takes court-appointed cases. Some of them are high-profile murder cases, but most are not.
“It’s my way of giving back to the underprivileged and the judges here are decent so the system here is user-friendly for lawyers, and the clerks, of course, are even more wonderful,” Silverstein said.
“I still enjoy the big cases but [the smaller ones] help with the flow of work for me,” he said when asked why he continues to take court-appointed cases. “I guess I keep doing them because I’m able to deal with them and process them and they don’t really bog me down or take up a lot of time.”
Silverstein said that it costs about $100 an hour to maintain his Bangor office.
Mitchell and Hartley both said they were disappointed the raise requested was not included in the governor’s budget.
Both men said the representatives of the commission and the defense lawyers’ group, respectively, would lobby legislators for a higher pay raise than the one included in the governor’s budget.