Maine’s indigent legal system issues another dire warning about rising workloads

Good morning from Augusta.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We have a lot of people who are ready for this to be over,” he said Chris Laird, an intensive care nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center, about the stress frontline health workers are experiencing from the recent COVID-19 wave, who has been testing resources at Bangor Hospital and others in the state.

What we’re watching today

A spate of criminal cases has led the embattled agency to supply lawyers to low-income clients, fearing it might not be able to staff them all. While the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services secured nearly $19 million in new funding in the two-year budget passed by the legislature earlier this year to pay more for its list of attorneys, it is still grappling with an exodus of attorneys due to low wages, high workload and other problems that have been around for years.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has piled more problems on the system. As courts came out of arrears, the commission handled a record nearly 29,000 cases in the past fiscal year. But the latest forecasts, based on even higher numbers of cases popping up in state courts and the summer workload of rostered attorneys, suggest bigger problems.

At the May-July pace, the commission would deal with 31,000 cases this fiscal year, according to a memo from Justin Andrus, executive director of the agency. If July were predictive, it would be 33,000. The problem is likely to hit certain areas harder, with Penobscot County seeing ongoing crimes rise 75 percent from one day in August to about the same time last year.

If the cases increased to 33,000, the committee would not be able to staff all cases, Andrus said. It comes as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine threatens to sue the state for violating the defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. Much is at stake for the system, as the committee meets Monday at 9 a.m. to discuss the issue. Listen here.

The Maine political top 3

— “Staff exposure to COVID-19 weakens the ability of Maine hospitals to combat the rise in critical cases,” Jessica Piper, Bangor Daily News: “The sudden surge in virus cases is hitting hospitals on two fronts: COVID-19 hospitalizations here jumped 62 percent in the past week and the number of patients requiring critical care rose to 71 on Friday , bringing the highest number-day total, while community transmission results in health workers testing positive or being quarantined due to potential exposure to the virus.”

The number of intensive care units has improved slightly this weekend, but the number of hospital admissions is still as high as in six months. The number of available ICU beds statewide rose to 57 on Sunday, according to the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Nirav Shahi, down from just 34 at the end of last week. There were still 71 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds and 142 people were admitted statewide with the disease, slightly less than Friday but still higher than any other day since February.

— “Key experts say the resurgence of COVID-19 will dampen the fall season for businesses,” Lori Valigra, BDN: “The state’s businesses have been running at full capacity since pandemic restrictions were lifted and pent-up demand for travel and leisure has boosted sales this summer. Maine tax revenues for retail stores, automobiles, restaurants and lodging rose to $3.22 billion in June from $2.59 billion in June, according to state data. That is higher than the pre-pandemic sales tax.”

Federal unemployment benefits will expire next week for more than 20,000 Mainers. Two programs that have provided comprehensive benefits to people who would not normally qualify for benefits or whose benefits had expired ended on Sept. 4. Another 7,500 people receiving state unemployment benefits will also see their weekly payments drop if an additional $300 weekly payment expires.

— “Lawsuit: Maine ‘slumlord’ rented family home with raw sewer,” Josh Keefe, BDN: “At the end of August, the plumbing stopped working properly and raw sewage began to leak into the house, leaving the family without running water for days. After several delays, LH Housing eventually brought in a plumber who fixed the problem but left an “excessive mess” in the house, including raw sewage that the plumber never cleaned, the suit said.

Today’s Daily Brief is written by Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or it’s been forwarded, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday here.

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