AUGUSTA — Defense attorneys from the Twin Cities who represent indigent criminal defendants voiced opposition Thursday to a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage’s office — a proposal aimed at cutting costs by bidding out work to law firms instead of reimbursing individual lawyers for their time spent on those cases.

No other state pays for legal expenses for the criminally indigent as Maine does.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard public comments Thursday on the bill that would create a new office of the public defender and amend the duties of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to oversee the new office and would no longer be in charge of compensation of court-appointed attorneys. The proposal wouldn’t employ public defenders to represent indigent defendants; rather, it would have the new office enter into contracts with private attorneys for those services.

More than two dozen lawyers — including a legislative co-sponsor — and two former defendants spoke against the bill during the three-hour hearing. One attorney spoke in favor of the bill.

The committee is expected to discuss the proposal on Feb. 4 and could vote at that meeting on whether to recommend its passage by the full Legislature.

Billy Thompson, an analyst at the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management, said the new structure should bring more stability to the budget that pays for criminal defense services for the indigent.


James Howaniec, a criminal defense lawyer from Lewiston who has spent 30 years in the courtroom, has devoted most of his law practice to representing indigent defendants.

“My biggest concern is for the poor,” he told the committee members. Lewiston “has its unique social and economic needs, and we see poverty in Lewiston like we see in no other parts of the state — perhaps, in some cases, in no other parts of the country.”

Those defendants he represents almost daily “don’t know where their next lunch is coming from sometimes,” he said.

Each month on a single day, he serves as attorney to roughly 100 people who were called back to court for not paying their fines, he said.

“If we get $4 out of them, we’re doing well that day,” he said. “So I’m really concerned about the impact of this legislation on the poor.”

For the past couple of months, Howaniec and Lewiston defense attorney Donald Hornblower, who also addressed the committee on Thursday, have discussed the governor’s bill with members of the Androscoggin County Bar Association.


“We are confident in representing to you that there is 100 percent opposition among the some 30 or so rostered attorneys in Lewiston,” who serve as court-appointed legal counsel, he said.

Howaniec, who worked at the Maine Attorney General’s Office shortly after graduating from law school in the 1980s, said the criminal justice system today is fraught with complexity.

“You can steal a toothbrush from Wal-Mart and you could become a felon,” he said. The collateral consequences of a felony record are many and far-reaching, including loss of public assistance for housing, right to carry a firearm and possible deportation, he said.

On one day last month, Howaniec said, he and another court-appointed local defense attorney represented more than 300 defendants. Each lawyer was paid $60 per hour for their services, the reimbursement fee for attorneys serving as “lawyer of the day,” representing indigent defendants facing possible jail time.

“It’s a lot more complicated and it’s getting even more complicated,” Howaniec said.

He referenced the case of Kristina Lowe of West Paris, who was 18 years old when the car she was driving crashed after she looked down at her cellphone. Two teens in the back seat were killed. Charges included two counts of manslaughter and aggravated operating under the influence.


She ended up being sentenced to spend less than a year in jail, Howaniec said, because he was assisted by the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which allowed him to hire a chemist, a toxicologist, doctors and expert witnesses.

“It was me and another young associate up against 12 state troopers and a well-funded District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “A few months later, I did a murder case. Same thing. It was me and a younger second chair up against a half-dozen or so state troopers, a bunch of local cops, and we had $1,500 in private investigation against around-the-clock, 24/7 prosecution services. So, these resources need to be protected. Otherwise, we’re going to have innocent people being found guilty and that’s a concern.”

Howaniec said no money is squandered in the current system that’s been in place since 2010, when the Legislature shifted the purse strings of payment of court-appointed attorneys from the judiciary to an independent agency.

“It think it’s a good system,” he said. “It’s a no-frills system. There’s not a lot of waste. People are earning $60 an hour. It’s not enough to pay a secretary and the other overhead involved. I lose money when I do these homicide cases.”

Hornblower, who practices criminal defense in Lewiston, told the committee, “My heart is in representing people who are poor.”

He said his court-appointed client base is generally a population addicted to drugs and alcohol and those who struggle with mental illnesses.


“We’re in a crisis right now,” he said, noting Maine’s drug problem is the worst he’s ever seen.

“It’s a real challenge for us to defend people,” he said, “but we do it and we do it really well. We put our heart into it.”

Hornblower said he’s suggested cost-saving changes to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services that have been adopted by the agency. More savings could be realized through standardized billing, he said.

“Changes are happening now,” he said, including many Maine courts moving to a so-called Unified Criminal Docket aimed at streamlining criminal cases through the system.

When defense attorneys use their expertise and skills to negotiate shorter sentences for their clients, it reduces the state’s costs for incarceration, Hornblower said.

“Good lawyers save the state money,” he said.


Maurice Porter, a defense attorney with an office in Norway, was a member of a commission that helped create the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services after crunching data and statistics.

Porter told lawmakers that complaints against criminal defense attorneys in Maine averaged 41 per year before the commission took over from the judiciary. Since 2010, the average has dropped to 21 complaints, he said.

He noted that no one speaking for the bill nor against it criticized the quality of services provided by the roughly 500 attorneys on the roster for court-appointed defendants.

As for price, Porter said a website that compares criminal defense costs shows that Maine spends in the bottom five of the 50 states, “no matter how you slice it, whether it’s per case, per defendant, per crime, per capita or per taxpayer.”

New Hampshire spends three times more than Maine; Vermont, four; and Massachusetts, five, he said.

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