Indigent Defense Commission releases recommendations

by Cynthia Price, Legal news, and from Michigan government and ACLU reports

The Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, appointed in October 2011 by Governor Rick Snyder, released a report on its findings and recommendations on June 22.
The commission was chaired by former Barry County Circuit Court Judge James Fisher, now of counsel at Law Weathers. The report’s release was met with a positive response from Gov. Snyder’s office as well as such sources as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan.

That same day, Gov. Rick Snyder thanked members of the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission for completing its mission of offering improvements to ensure cost-effective, consistent and qualified legal counsel is provided to low income criminal defendants across Michigan.

 “I appreciate the commission for developing its recommendations to help overcome the decades-long challenges that have impeded Michigan’s public defense system,” Snyder said. “I will review the recommendations and look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that all criminal defendants, regardless of ability to pay, receive effective legal representation in our state.”

The diverse 14-member commission, which includes four legislators and 10 members appointed by Snyder, came together to produce its recommendations nearly one month before the July 15 deadline.

 Snyder created the commission in Executive Order 2011-12, issued last October, and reiterated   the need to reform indigent defense in his March special message on public safety.

Also on June 22, ACLU of Michigan lauded the report, which it said “outlines comprehensive solutions to the state’s broken system for providing attorneys to poor people accused of crimes.”

Said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director, “Today’s report recommendations are another step forward in addressing a serious constitutional problem that has denied justice to far too many poor people in Michigan. The commission has not only acknowledged that we have a problem, but outlined a roadmap for the legislature to ensure that our criminal justice system works for all Michiganders regardless of their economic status.”

The Commission’s report is the latest in a string studies since the 1980s that have called on Michigan to change the way it provides lawyers for the poor. In 2008, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Michigan’s system had reached a “constitutional crisis.”

“For too long, Michigan has ignored the high cost of wrongful convictions,” said William Fleener, Cooley Innocence Project staff attorney. “Such convictions not only cost the state millions of dollars, but they also cost lives – the innocent men and women who are imprisoned, the families who suffer and the public that believes a crime has been solved.”

Currently, Michigan provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level. There is no training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. Often, attorneys have too many cases and insufficient resources to hire outside investigators or experts to adequately represent their client.

In response to these systemic flaws, the Commission recommended that the Governor and Legislature adopt legislation to, among other recommendations, create a permanent commission to establish and enforce minimum statewide standards with special care to ensure quality counsel for juveniles in the adult system and those with mental health issues.  In addition, the Commission tasked the legislature to base all standards on the American Bar Association’s widely-accepted “10 Principles for an Effective Public Defense.”

For years, the ACLU of Michigan and its coalition partners have worked in the courts and the legislature to fix Michigan’s broken system. In 2007, the ACLU of Michigan and national ACLU filed a class action against the state on behalf of all indigent criminal defendants in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee Counties. The lawsuit was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court and called on the court to declare the current public defense systems of the three counties unconstitutional and compel the state to assure representation consistent with national standards and constitutional norms.

The commission’s report is available at http://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/Indigent_Defense_Advisory_Comm_Rpt_390212_7.pdf