The head of the state office that hires private defense attorneys for the poor said Thursday he’s continuing to work toward creating a public defender system, rather than relying solely on contract lawyers.

Justin Andrus, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that in the last year, he’s been able to more easily retain private attorneys and has hired four attorneys to help with oversight and auditing.

But he hasn’t been able to set up a public defender system similar to what’s offered in other states. In fact, Maine is the only state that relies on private attorneys to represent those who can’t afford to pay for one.

“We’re sort of at a crossroads,” he said. “What we’re unable yet to do is move forward in a direction of a public defense system that really meets the strictures of the 6th Amendment.”

The U.S. Constitution’s 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a “speedy and public trial” and “assistance of counsel.”

As Andrus envisions it, the state needs to build a hybrid system where it continues to pay attorneys to represent some defendants, but also hires attorneys to work in public defender offices in some locations. He said he could start by opening a public defender office in Augusta, which would then dispatch attorneys to places such as Washington and Aroostook counties as needed.

In a written report to the committee, Andrus noted that 354 attorneys participated in the indigent legal system in 2021. They opened 28,571 cases, averaging 73 cases per attorney. To help retain attorneys, the state increased pay for those in the program from $60 an hour to $80 per hour. To be on par with prosecutors, the report notes, the rate should be $100 an hour because private practice attorneys must cover all of their overhead and earn a salary.

Last year, the commission paid $16.5 million to attorneys through the program. That’s higher than the $13.4 million spent in 2020 – the height of the pandemic – but still less than the $17.3 million spent in pre-pandemic 2019.

In addition to hearing from Andrus, the committee called on members of the governing board of the indigent legal services commission. Former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander said the program has seen major improvements over the last year.

“The evolution over the last year is absolutely dramatic,” he said, noting in particular the improvements in getting attorneys to take cases.

But while Alexander is upbeat, fellow board member Ron Schneider said one of his biggest disappointments is that the state hasn’t provided the funding to pay for a public defender system.

“We remain the only state in the nation without a public defender office somewhere,” he said. “The only state.”

To attract young lawyers, the state needs to provide jobs with health insurance, training and support, sick time and retirement plans, Schneider said. And when it comes to meeting standards set by the American Bar Association, the state continues to fall short, he said.

“We are failing,” Schneider said. “We still get a failing grade. I’m just here to say thank you, but also to say we need to keep moving forward and one of the things we really need to do is have some kind of institutionalized employment-based public defender office in this state.”

The Legislature has a bill, LD 1686, that calls for the creation of a public defender office in Kennebec County. The 17-position office would cost about $1 million in the first year and $2.1 million in the second year, according to the legislation. It was set aside last year awaiting funding.

The Judiciary Committee could also opt to bring forward new legislation to address other issues, such as a need to help public defense attorneys pay off college loans, something Andrus said has been identified as a significant problem for some.

While the committee will meet again to decide what to do, Rep. Christopher Babbidge (D-Kennebunk) said it’s up to committee members to convince the Legislature that Maine still isn’t meeting its constitutional obligations.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to be the champions of that cause,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield) cautioned against using one-time funds to create ongoing expenses. And she noted that the pandemic has caused a backlog of cases in the criminal justice system, which is another problem that needs to be addressed.

“A big concern is going to be that we don’t create liabilities we don’t have the funding for in the future,” she said.