Muskegon County Public Defender office setting high standard for other Michigan PD offices

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– LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY  DIANA L. COLEMAN

By Diana L. Coleman
Legal News
 
Under the direction of Muskegon County Public Defender, Frederick D. Johnson, Jr., the Muskegon County Public Defender’s office is the shining star among Michigan public defender offices.
 
Johnson has introduced the Bronx Defense model into the Muskegon County Public Defender program.  It is a holistic approach to representing the defendants its office represents.   The Muskegon County Public Defender’s office won a grant from the Bronx Defenders in New York City, which according to its website “provides innovative, holistic, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to indigent people of the Bronx.”  Muskegon County received one of only five grants issued nationwide by the Bronx Defenders in 2016, which was an honor in itself.  

“Michigan has had no standards as to who can do what,” said Johnson.  “The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) is promulgating rules that indigent defense lawyers will have to meet certain standards.  They will have to be experienced in order to meet them.  They will be independent (meaning that judges cannot hire or fire the indigent defense attorney).”

Johnson proudly stated, “We in Muskegon County meet all the standards. We meet with the client early and often and continue to pursue education. 

“MIDC will pay counties to bring defenders up to the standards.  We are looking for approximately $200-300,000 from MIDC for Muskegon County to help us keep meeting the standards.”

The Bronx Defense model is an innovative model of public defense, called “Holistic Defense,” that achieves better outcomes for clients, their families, and their communities.  Holistic Defense combines aggressive legal advocacy with a broader recognition that for most poor people arrested and charged with a crime, the criminal case is not the only issue with which they struggle.

To be truly effective advocates for clients, attorneys must expand the scope of their representation to address the collateral consequences and enmeshed penalties of court involvement, as well as the underlying issues that play a part in driving clients into the justice systems in the first place. Attorneys who have a more comprehensive understanding of their clients, their families, and their circumstances are able to provide holistic representation that achieves better case disposition and better life outcomes.

Moreover, clients who receive support from a holistic and interdisciplinary team of legal and social support advocates are better equipped with the knowledge and resources to address the issues associated with their court involvement.  Working with their holistic team, clients are able to make truly informed decisions about how to proceed with their cases and are empowered with the resources and support to address the underlying issues and challenges in their lives.  As a result, these clients fare better either while plea-bargaining or going to trial. Ultimately, getting to the root of these problems and by stabilizing lives, the practice of Holistic Defense reduces the likelihood of future criminal justice contact.
 
Representing clients holistically leads to better case dispositions because lawyers with a more comprehensive understanding of their clients are more effective advocates.  Moreover, clients who are beginning to address some of the underlying issues in their lives generally fare better.

“Criminality is often a symptom of something else,” said Johnson.  “Mental health, poverty, drugs are just a few of the problems of our clients and often they will go back to worse situations.  With the help of social work interns, we are able to use an interview sheet with check boxes to determine background of our clients.  Such things as homelessness, human trafficking, social/substance abuse and other issues are uncovered.  The intern then connects the client to the agencies that help with a particular problem and the social worker stays with the client throughout the entire process.  The intern visits the inmate, sets up timelines, chases witnesses, and keeps the family and client informed.

“The interns are provided as part of a statewide program,” he added.  “They are committed to helping the client by getting them into programs and redirecting their future.

“The Muskegon County Public Defender’s office will be used as a model in the State of Michigan as counties set up their own programs.”

Johnson comments, “The MIDC standards and the Bronx Defense holistic defense model already have Muskegon County defenders practicing better law.

Our office is operative at three times the level we should be — MIDC standards are 400 and we are doing 1200 cases.  This is three times the amount for felonies and three times the amount for family law.  The interns help with our large caseload.”  

Arraignments are not currently covered by representatives from the Public Defender office. “The client really needs the lawyer at the arraignment,” said Johnson.  “Grand Rapids had a pilot program under Judge Smolenski [in which public defenders could be   present at arraignment] where the judge would set the bond and the lawyer could negotiate on the defendant’s behalf, providing better service for everyone.”
 
“Our public defenders office can push for more witnesses and experts which mean improved justice for the defendant.  Even if the client has no money, more justice will be accomplished,” said Johnson.  “We are the only public defender office in the State of Michigan using the holistic model and we are extremely proud of the work we do.

“We have a great team approach. We have attorneys for trial and I act as the facilitator.  The team approach works well in getting experts lined up, etc.  This approach assists the lawyers to get where they needed to be. “

The Muskegon County Public Defender’s office is composed of 13 attorneys including Johnson himself, three staff members, four social work interns, and one undergraduate.  The office also has six conflict attorneys to take cases when needed.  “We need more money for conflict attorneys,” said Johnson.  “We are asking MIDC for money for this area.”

“With the changes implemented by MIDC standards and using the Bronx Defense holistic defense model, we are achieving great success in providing full access to justice for our clients, notwithstanding their ability to pay,” said Johnson.

“We have been told by some that the holistic approach to defense is ‘coddling criminals,’” said Johnson.  “This is not true. By trying to treat the reasons behind the criminality, there is a greater likelihood that the defendant will exit the criminal justice system and move on to a productive life.

“We are not always successful,” he continued.  “But we keep trying and trying and hope by getting the client the resources they need, society will be the beneficiary of the decrease in criminal behavior.”

Johnson is proud of his office and the attorneys and staff working there.  The halls of the PD’s building are lined with frames containing the judgments in cases the public defender won, display for visitors.  The frames are divided by district and circuit court cases; the circuit court cases are displayed in the first floor hallway and the district court cases in the second floor hallway.

Congratulations are due to Public Defender Johnson for hard work and determination to make the Muskegon County Public Defender’s office a shining model for all Michigan PD offices.