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Gov. Snyder establishes commission to help legal defense process for the poor

Gov. Rick Snyder has established a bipartisan commission to investigate how to improve the legal defense services provided to low-income people accused of crimes.

Michigan law puts each county in charge of operating its own system for providing attorneys for the poor, or indigent, and the state has been criticized and sued for failing to provide oversight and ensure that counties provide an adequate level of representation.

As he issued an executive order establishing the commission on Thursday, the governor said that the commission is needed because the quality of legal representation provided to those who cannot afford their own attorneys varies greatly across the state.

“A core principle of our criminal justice system is to guarantee that an individual charged with a crime be entitled to legal representation, even if they are unable to hire private counsel,” Snyder said. “The Commission will work to ensure that all criminal defendants receive effective assistance of counsel.”

The 14 member Indigent Defense Advisory Commission includes the chairman of the House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee, Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rohester Hills), Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods, Sen. Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale), Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit), and ten other members representing the judiciary, prosecuting and criminal attorneys, the State Bar of Michigan, local government and the general public.

The group is tasked with finding ways to ensure that qualified and cost-effective legal counsel is provided in a consistent manner across the state and issuing recommendations by July 15, 2012.

Legal and civil rights groups praised the governor’s action.

David Carroll is research director for The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), which spent a year investigating Michigan’s indigent defense systems on behalf of the state legislature, and principal author of the group’s 2008 report A Race to the Bottom: Speed and Savings over Due Process – A Constitutional Crisis.

Carroll called the new commission a “critical first step” in addressing longstanding structural problems in the way Michigan provides legal counsel to the poor.

“This is a public safety issue,” he said, “When an innocent person is sent to prison as a result of public defenders not having the time, tools and training to effectively advocate for their clients, the true perpetrator of the crime remains free to victimize others and put public safety in jeopardy.”

Carroll said that Michigan is failing to provide any type of supervision or ongoing training for public defense lawyers and that these attorneys often have ethical conflicts because they get their paychecks from the trial judge that awards them contracts.

Collectively Michigan counties spend $7.35 per capita on indigent defense services — 38 percent less than the national average, according to NLADA’s investigation, and the counties most in need of indigent services are the the ones that can least afford them. Financial pressures have led many counties to choose low bid, flat-fee contract systems where attorneys are torn between their duty to competently defend a client and financial self interest that dictates spending the least amount of time on each case.

The NLADA report found, for example, that public defenders in the city of Detroit average 2,400 cases per year; the American Bar Association’s standard is only 400 cases per year.

“We are pleased that governor has taken this step forward toward establishing a statewide public defense system,” said Michelle Weemhoff, senior policy policy associate for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. “The reports coming out are consistently saying that Michigan’s public defense systems are failing. This is an opportunity to examine this issue in depth and look at what it is going to take to make sure that constitutional rights are upheld.”

In February a state bar association panel convened to examine ways to improve the judicial system amid falling revenue reported that improving the state indigent defense

system would save money by reducing costly appeals and lowering jail and prison costs for inmates unjustly convicted or sentenced.

“By almost every measure, indigent criminal defense as a whole in Michigan falls far short of accepted standards, undermining the quality of justice, jeopardizing public safety, and creating large and avoidable costs,” the Judicial Task Force said.

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