Thursday, May 9, 2013

Michigan looks to improve indigent defense and save money

Almost five years have passed since a study showed poor criminal defendants are routinely processed through Michigan's justice system without ever speaking to an attorney in violation of the Constitution, reported the Detroit News.

It has been nearly a year since a group appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder recommended fixes, including creation of state standards so counties are forced to bring legal aid up to par.

"The biggest exposure for the state of Michigan is they offloaded this to the counties without any sort of system to make sure that counties are doing it right," David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based group working to improve indigent defense told the News. "If they can't guarantee that the counties are doing it, the states are liable."

Legislation being considered in House and Senate committees last week and this week would create an independent, permanent state commission to establish standards ensuring effective counsel is given to low-income defendants. Lawyers' ability, training and experience would have to match the nature and complexity of the case assigned, for example.

Instead of having full-time public defender offices, many counties now control costs with low-bid, flat-fee contracts in which appointed attorneys accept cases for a predetermined fee. That causes a conflict of interest between their duty to competently defend their clients and a financial self-interest to invest less time on cases to maximize profits, according to a 2008 report commissioned by the Legislature.

Under the bills, lawyers' workloads would be better controlled, and financial incentives or disincentives leading attorneys to short-change defendants "shall be avoided."

Local governments would have to fund indigent defense at the average level spent in the three years before the creation of the commission. The state would cover new costs for counties to improve their public defense systems. Michigan is among just seven states to provide no state funding for trial-level public defense services, according to the Michigan Campaign for Justice, a group supporting the legislation.

The lead sponsors are Republicans, including one of the most conservative in the Capitol. Those GOPs look at the indigent defense issue, not as a constitution issue, but a a dollar and cents issue.

"We have people who are sent to jail who are innocent or sentenced to longer terms because they were not represented properly. Keep in mind that we also pay $30,000-plus every year for each innocent person to be in prison," GOP Rep. Tom McMillin told the News.

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