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Proposed standards would raise bar for MI’s indigent defense system

Courtesy Michigan Indigent Defense Commission

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney. But underfunded and disjointed public defense systems means that low income people accused of a crime don’t get adequate representation in court. A new set of standards from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission hopes to change that.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that when people are accused of a crime, they have a right to a lawyer...even if they don’t have the money to pay one. But for decades, public defenders in Michigan have been raising concerns about how well low-income people are actually represented in court.

In 2008, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Michigan ranked 44th out of 50 states when it came to spending on public defense systems. The statewide average was just $7.25 for each defendant.

In July of 2013, Governor Rick Snyder created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission and charged it with creating minimum state standards for indigent defense. Earlier this month, the Commission released its second draft of those standards.

Current State talks with commission executive director Jonathan Sacks and commission chair Jim Fisher, a former chief judge of the Barry County trial court.


Why has it taken so long to get traction on this issue?

SACKS: The real reason is because it's always the lowest priority. Folks who cannot afford their own attorney who are poor people facing a loss of liberty, they are in a desperate situation. But when it comes to government priorities for spending, it's often the last thing on the list. Even with all the action and movement in that direction, we've only seen real movement with establishment of our agency in the last few years.

What were the most pressing problems you found in our indigent defense system?
FISHER: As the 2008 report indicated, we just don't have any uniformity across the state in terms of qualifications, training, evaluation, compensation and resources and so forth. The entire system has been underfunded for decades. The other problem we noted on the advisory commission was getting accurate data about what we have across the state is a very tough issue. Our main recommendation was to create a permanent commission so that we would have the resources to do a through investigation before deciding what the best solution would be.
What other changes to the current court system are you suggesting? 
SACKS: [Defendants] may not see their lawyer for the first time until they go to a crowded court room and they're in a what's known as a bullpen—a holding cell with a lot of other folks there facing charges— and the lawyer will say ‘Okay we're going to court today. Here's what's going to happen’. We wanted to make sure that an initial interview, especially with a client in custody, took place within three business days of when somebody was appointed to represent a client. It just leads to much, much better representations and much better outcomes for somebody facing charges.
What does the future look like?
FISHER: As I see it, the financing from the state is going to be the largest hurdle we face. We are going about this methodically and taking a practical viewpoint. We're going to try to build a case, collect the data, develop the evidence to demonstrate to the legislature that we have these need, that it's a pressing need and it's something that they should be funding in the future. and so that'll be the acid test. Will the legislature step up to the plate and devote the resources to the system that it deserves and needs?
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