The region’s first public defender starts work

By Marie Weidmayer, Bangor Daily News Staff

Piscataquis and Penobscot County’s first public defender started work on Monday, July 8.

District Defender Logan Perkins is working on hiring staff for the state-funded office that will represent clients who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

The office was established by the Maine Legislature earlier this year in response to the crisis in the state’s legal system caused by a shortage of defense lawyers compared with the number of pending cases in the court system. It has left defendants increasingly jailed without lawyers, sometimes for extended periods of time.

“Building a brick and mortar public defender’s office is going to help address that,” she said. “But it’s not an immediate silver bullet. It’s going to take some time to build the institution in such a way that we can really make a dent in that.”

Bangor Daily News photo/Linda Coan O’Kresik
PUBLIC DEFENDER — Logan Perkins is opening the new district defender office in Bangor, covering Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

The first public defender office opened in Augusta in late 2023 and there is a mobile rural defender unit. The Bangor-area office is one of two expected to open this year, with an office in Aroostook County moving forward on a similar timeline. 

While the Bangor office is still looking for lawyers with multiple years of experience, the Caribou office has hired two people, said Jim Billings, the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

The offices are opening amid an on-going class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, saying the state is failing to provide indigent clients with adequate counsel and depriving them of their constitutional rights. A second attempt to settle the lawsuit was rejected in February.

Maine has long been the only state in the nation without public defenders. Billings’ agency is instead responsible for assigning low-income defendants to a roster of lawyers that saw an exodus in past years due to low reimbursement rates that have since been raised. He sees the burgeoning defender system as a potential long-term solution.

“I think that by this time next year we’ll see some differences in the number of cases that do not have lawyers,” Billings said.

The Bangor office opening will be a help for the area, especially because it will be an office where lawyers will have training and supervision, criminal defense lawyer Hunter Tzovarras said. There are hundreds of cases in need of lawyers, with many defendants stuck in jail without legal representation. 

“I don’t think it could come at a more needed time,” Tzovarras said.

Perkins practiced criminal law solo in the Bangor and Belfast areas for about 10 years. She closed her practice in January 2022, following burnout from difficult cases and working alone during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think Logan is a great person to run the office,” Tzovarras said. “I think she has a real passion for it.”

Perkins said she decided to come back to criminal defense because of the opportunity to build the defender’s office from scratch. Building a good work ethic within the office, to do the work sustainably is important to her.

About 30 percent of indigent defendants will be represented by the defender’s office, with the rest represented by private attorneys appointed by the commission. If they take on too many cases too fast, they’ll end up drowning, with new lawyers in over their heads, Perkins said.

“You can’t take 50 cases on day one if you’ve never done the work before,” Billings said.

The new office will work with the state agency to decide which cases they are available to take. They will take on misdemeanors and felonies, although severe felonies like murder will stay with private lawyers for the foreseeable future, she said.

Public defenders may start taking clients as early as Aug. 1, depending on how the hiring process goes, with the goal of being fully staffed by Oct. 1, she said. 

Five more lawyers will be hired, two people with about five years of experience, while the other three can be recent law school graduates. The job posting is available on the state of Maine’s website. She will also be hiring support staff. The office will be in Bangor, although the state has not yet found office space.

Eventually the Legislature should fund the office enough to take on 50 percent of indigent cases, as well as hire a social worker and a private investigator, Perkins said. She said if the public defender office takes on half the cases that the district attorney office handles, then the defender’s office needs to be staffed to parity for salary with half the staff and resources.

“We need a defense bar that is respected as an institution,” she said. “If we’re going to have a democracy, we have to have a healthy defense bar. That’s all there is to it.”

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