Counties consider how to represent the indigent

By Toni Gantert

Legal News
 
In Chippewa County, court-appointed lawyers had to meet with their clients in a public restroom because no space was made available for them.
 
In Ottawa County, public defenders were not assigned investigators to look into the facts of their case.
 
Such stories showing the plight of defendants too poor to afford their own lawyers have now caught the attention of the state Legislature.
 
Michigan lawmakers have introduced House Bill 4529 and Senate Bill 300 that would create the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which was recommended by a study group set up by Gov. Rick Snyder.
 
State Representative Tom McMillin said the commission would allow the counties control of how they go about meeting specific standards.
 
“One of the few things that the government must do well is to have a fair judicial system,” McMillin said. “Today we have people who are sentenced unjustly in Michigan. We have people who are sent to jail who are innocent or sentenced to longer terms because they were not represented properly.”
 
According to a 2008 study by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Michigan ranked 44th in the country for public defense spending.
 
Already, some counties have taken note and have plans to improve their representation of indigent clients.
 
Last month, Muskegon County officials announced it was switching to a hybrid system of the Washtenaw County version of the public defender’s office.
 
In Washtenaw County, the judge assigns attorneys who work in the public defender’s office to indigent clients. 
 
Also, the public defenders can earn as much as assistant prosecutors.
 
“In my opinion, it’s the best way to go,” said Washtenaw County Public Defender Lloyd Powell.
 
Powell said it was important to consider the American Bar Association’s 10 principles pertaining to the defense of indigent clients that are considered the national standard.
 
Those ABA principles cover such things as how soon attorneys are appointed, whether the same attorney handles the client for the entire case, and how much time and confidential space the defense counsel is provided, as well as other safeguards regarding the quality of work provided by the attorney.
 
When using the ABA’s 10 principles, Powell said a public defender’s office is in a better position to represent indigent clients than those that are contracted out to individual attorneys.
 
In Jackson County, the clerk randomly assigns attorneys from a list who have signed up to represent indigent clients for major felonies.
 
A judge must qualify them to represent the client.
 
Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka wondered how expensive it would be to create a public defender’s office.
 
“That costs money to have an office that is equally as funded as the prosecutor’s office,” Jarzynka said. “Counties are facing budget issues. How do you fund that?”
 
Claiming that  using independent attorneys to work with indigent people works in Jackson County, he said, “The reality is, local attorneys know the local judges, they know what they do on certain types of charges, they know the local prosecutors, They have knowledge that applies locally that is really important. They do a good job.”
 
Ingham County District Court Judge Thomas Boyd said that the standards set by the soon-to-be-formed indigent defense commission will be introduced over perhaps two to three years.
 
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Boyd said.
 
Boyd said one reform he thinks will be the first standard enacted is to separate the judiciary from the process of how indigent clients are assigned their attorneys.
 
Jackson Attorney George Lyons is one of the few attorneys who is a public defender in major felony cases in Jackson. 
 
He said he thought indigent people are represented well in Jackson County.
 
“But if they are concerned about it, how about paying the lawyers more?” Lyons asked.  “How about that? They are talking about bathrooms. Often times you have the persons who are making the laws who never tried a case. They need to talk to us, the people who are on the ground doing the work.”
 
Boyd said it’s important that judges not be involved because of potential conflicts of interest. He said he was at a conference and a Wayne County Judge asked how he would fund his re-election campaigns if he wasn’t allowed to assign attorneys public defender cases.
 
“He wasn’t kidding. No one laughed,” Boyd said. “It leads to corruption.”
 
The two bills are now in committee.

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