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Senator: Representing Children, Mentally Ill Should Be Public Defense Specialty

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Hearings are supposed to begin this summer on plans to ensure poor defendants get a fair shake in the legal system.A state lawmaker says he wants to make sure that legal services for children and people with mental illnesses are part of it.           

State Senator Bruce Caswell served on the special commission that recommended an overhaul of Michigan’s indigent defense system.

Caswell says children and people with mental health problems have unique issues when they get caught in the legal system – and their public defenders often don’t have the skills or experience to deal with them.

Caswell says that means some people are being sent to prison when they should be dealt with differently. He says that is a travesty of justice, especially when dealing with young people. 

“Because once we send them to prison, they’re changed and they’re changed forever,” he says.

Poor legal representation is considered one reason why so many teens in Michigan are sentenced to prison time. The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for minors as unfair because they don’t take into account each child’s circumstances.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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