I am a long-time criminal defense lawyer in Androscoggin County. I defend mostly indigent people who cannot otherwise afford to pay for a lawyer. Some of my clients have been charged with very serious crimes, such as homicides, drug felonies and sex offenses. Many more face charges that are less serious, but that nonetheless have serious consequences if they result in conviction. I have been representing a Somali man who has been charged with welfare fraud, for example, and faces possible deportation and separation from his five American-born children for his non-violent crime.

My recent experiences with that case and other serious cases in recent years have led me to a disturbing conclusion: The criminal justice system in Maine is approaching a level of crisis.

I call upon the governor, Legislature, and the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court to apply the resources necessary to fix a severely broken system.

As I write this article in early May, the hundreds of lawyers doing indigent defense work in Maine, including myself, are not being paid for our services. The state budget for indigent legal services was underfunded yet again this year by millions of dollars. We will not be paid until sometime after July 1 at the earliest, when the new fiscal year goes into effect.

This is an outrageous situation. All of the prosecutors in the state are being paid. All of the judges are being paid. All of the state and local police, the court clerks, the court security officers and the janitors who clean the court buildings are being paid. They are also receiving health insurance and retirement benefits. They deserve every penny they get. In fact, they are underpaid.

Any yet, the state cannot find the funds to pay for lawyers who defend people living in poverty who have been charged with crimes. Why is that?

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I realize that criminal defense lawyers are not the most popular people among the general public. But do we really want to live in a country where only the wealthy and people with means can have the right to a lawyer?

Does the public really want a system where only the wealthy are presumed innocent and the poor must fend for themselves? There are countries in the world, like China, Iran, North Sudan, El Salvador, and others, where that is in fact what happens. Our country appears headed in that direction. Shame on our elected officials.

What the governor and Legislature are doing is not only un-American, it is unconstitutional and illegal. In its 1963 landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court required states to provide legal representation to defendants who are unable to pay for their own attorneys. It is a legal principle that has served our nation well for more than 50 years.

Court-appointed lawyers work tirelessly across the country to make sure that innocent citizens are not wrongfully convicted; that the mentally ill are protected; that those suffering from substance abuse receive treatment; and that fundamental liberties of the poor are not infringed upon by the government without due process and equal protection of the laws.

Court-appointed lawyers do not get rich off of this work. The current hourly pay usually does not cover basic overhead, such as office rent and secretarial and paralegal help. We have to fund our own health insurance benefits and retirement accounts. For someone like me who has been doing this for more than 30 years, it is usually less of an urgency. For younger lawyers, though, who have student loans to pay off and young families to support, a two-month gap in pay can have devastating consequences.

A few years ago I defended an 18-year-old girl named Kristina Lowe who was charged with two counts of manslaughter in Oxford County following allegations of texting and driving. A couple of years later I defended a 19-year-old boy named William True who was charged with a murder in Greene. These types of cases are really difficult to defend, with complicated forensic issues, DNA evidence, and thousands of pages of reports to sift through. In each case, we believed strongly in the innocence of our client. In each case, my young assistants and I were up against well-funded prosecution teams from the district attorney and attorney general offices. Literally dozens of state and local law enforcement officers were on the cases and were available to the prosecutors around the clock.

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My assistants and I were paid at rates that did not even begin to cover our office overhead. We had a lone private investigator available to us to do a few hours of cursory investigation and talk to a few witnesses. In other words, we were grossly outmanned by the enormous resources available to the state. If this disproportion in resources continues to grow at its current pace, innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and the poor will continue to be punished more severely than the rich.

Somebody in state government needs to step up and show some courage in resolving this crisis. If not, I truly fear for the future of our judicial system, which has served this country so well for more than two centuries.

Jim Howaniec has practiced criminal law in Lewiston since 1990. He has also served as a former assistant attorney general in Augusta and as mayor of Lewiston.

James Howaniec


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