Shortage of attorneys spurs calls for criminal justice reform


As summer is in full swing and the apparent effects of the Covid-19 pandemic come to light, the state is seeing a demanding need for jobs. However, the jobs in question extend far beyond that of the healthcare and hospitality industries into one that some might not expect: a possible shortage of attorneys. 

This issue dates back to at least 2017. In an article from the Portland Press Herald in October of that year, the shortage of attorneys in rural Maine was of great concern; so concerning, in fact, that the state’s only law school, Maine Law, offered students paid fellowships to work in these rural law offices.

According to Maine Law, the Rural Fellowship pairs students with rural lawyers who serve as mentors, as well as providing students with direct exposure to rural practice. Initially part of a three year pilot program with partners such as the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar and Maine State Bar Association, it was renewed for three more years through a grant from the Betterment Fund.  

In another article, this time by the Bangor Daily News in 2019, it was further detailed that the age of attorneys is growing older and older. In rural Maine, 65 percent of attorneys are older than 50. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), on average, attorneys are older with a median age of 47.5 compared to the typical U.S. worker who has a median age of 42.3. In a 2017 report from the Board of Overseers of the Bar, Maine’s median attorney age was 53 years old. Maine is, afterall, the oldest state in the nation by median age. 

The Covid-19 pandemic did not help this scenario. On the verge of reaching a “breaking point,” the state is at a crossroads when it comes to how to handle many criminal justice reforms. This remains an issue since there was a nearly complete stop to criminal trials last year due to the pandemic, and now there are 26,600 felony and misdemeanor cases statewide as of May 2021. This is an increase of more than 56% from before the pandemic began in January of 2020.

One organization seeing the effects of the shortage of attorneys is the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services (MCILS). MCILS was established in 2009 as a way to assist individuals needing representation in Maine and who are entitled to it at the State’s expense. MCILS protects the rights of Maine citizens by providing oversight, support, and training through either attorney’s contracted or through private counsel. As of now, the organization has been able to fulfill client needs through court appointed attorneys, but time is running short, and the caseload that attorneys are taking on is starting to become troublesome, especially to State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship). 

Evangelos is currently serving his fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives and has been a strong voice when it comes to reforming the Maine justice system. One of his proposed bills currently awaiting funding is LD 54, a bill three years in the making which would facilitate the fair hearing of newly discovered evidence for those who have been convicted of a crime. At the moment, when new evidence comes forward to exonerate someone in prison, the convicted has one year to make a case before the evidence becomes inadmissible. Evangelos makes the point that when one is sitting in prison with limited phone calls and visits, one year to construct a new case can be not only difficult, but also potentially impossible. 

This is not the only obstacle facing the criminal justice system. With the shortage of attorneys, and the overworking of these attorneys, it is possible that the defense to which the accused is entitled is diminished. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution entitles one to a defense, and it is questionable in today’s system if defendants are getting the best defense possible. This has resulted in what some might argue is a broken system in Maine. 

The Prison Policy Initiative in 2019 gave Maine an “F-” when it came to grading the parole release system. Granted, Maine does not even have a parole system, as it was abolished in 1976. Since then, according to Evangelos, incarceration is up 400% in the state. This is, in turn, putting a strain on MCILS. The Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center (6AC), an organization that seeks to ensure no person faces potential time in jail or prison without first having the aid of a lawyer with the time, ability, and resources to present an effective defense, was founded in 2013. 

In 2019, 6AC released an article that revealed some deficiencies in MCILS. To start, Maine has few and insufficient requirements attorneys must meet when determining if they are eligible to represent indigent defendants. As stated in the 6AC article, “an attorney who graduated from law school two years ago…with no supervision or training, can have two jury trials and two judge trials and then be appointed to represent indigent defendants in every type of criminal case other than a homicide or sex offense. More worrisome perhaps is that indigent defendants charged with Class E crimes, carrying up to six months in jail, can be represented by an attorney who just received their bar card and completed a single training course in criminal law, as long as the lawyer has an email address, telephone number, and a confidential space to meet with clients.” 

When it comes down to it, MCILS is indeed struggling. Despite increasing the hourly rate to $80/hour for attorneys in this scenario, this is still insufficient, as there are no benefits provided and those working for MCILS still most often have staff to pay and an office to run. 

Furthermore, in a state report from the Pew Research Center, it was determined that in 2019 Maine ranked bottom of the list at 49th out of 50 states when it came to prison rates. Because there is no possibility of parole, Maine prisoners are serving determinative sentences, potentially making them longer on average than in other states. When it came time to be released from jail, more than 40 percent of Maine inmates maxed out their prison terms and were left without supervision. This means these inmates must find a way to incorporate their skills back into the public sphere; they account for over 63% of released people within the state of Maine. 

As it relates to criminal law and offenders, Maine has an overworked legal system. Attorneys that are court appointed and who are working through MCILS are not paid enough, and they have the potential to be inexperienced and overwhelmed. If one is getting ineffective legal counsel, it is possible they will have a higher chance of losing their case or pleading guilty and thus being placed within the criminal justice system and becoming incarcerated. Once this happens, regaining a life that prospers in the public eye can be no easy task. Perhaps a step in the correct direction is the new bill that was just signed into law, LD 957, which helps people guilty of low-level crimes contribute to their communities, rather than serve jail time. 

Other bills include those proposed by Evangelos, including LD 54, which would facilitate the fair hearing of all newly discovered evidence for those already convicted. Furthermore, he sponsored LD 348, which was incorporated into LD 1687 and enacted into law without the governor’s signature earlier this month, which allows MCILS to remove attorneys from their roster if they have violated a law or standard by the commission.

One thing does remain, which is that Maine is in need of attorneys, as well as reforms. With few attorneys able to work at the best of their ability and who are also qualified to be representing the defendants they serve, there’s potential for even more defendants ending up in the system. Once that has happened, there is no concrete route back to a life in public—something that is crucial to maintaining a productive, rewarding state.