By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) – Lawmakers took a step toward improving the trial-level public defense services available to Michigan’s poorest residents Wednesday by backing bills to establish statewide standards and tap into the state’s coffers to pad cash-strapped counties’ legal defense funds.
A bill approved 34-3 by the Senate creates an independent, permanent state commission to establish standards designed to ensure effective counsel is given to low-income defendants.
Local governments will have to fund indigent defense at the average level they spent in the three years before the creation of the commission. The state plans to cover new costs for counties to improve their public defense systems, a tab estimated to run $50 million a year in the future.
Michigan is among just seven states to provide no state funding for trial-level public defenders, according to the Michigan Campaign for Justice, a group supporting the bills.
“It’s the beginning of what’s going to be a long process. That long process will be in each of our respective counties around the state bringing their indigent defense system up to the constitutional standards that are required,” said Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, a sponsor of a related bill that passed the House on a 102-7 vote Wednesday. “All the counties are at different levels. None of them are fully compliant today.”
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 Republican-sponsored bills to be signed by Snyder, lawyers’ workloads will be better controlled, and financial incentives or disincentives leading attorneys to short-change defendants “shall be avoided.” The Michigan Supreme Court has to sign off on statewide standards set by the commission.
Although the legislation promises that the state will cover additional costs for counties, it will be up to legislators to set aside the funds each budget year.
“If the Legislature does not appropriate this money, then the counties don’t have to move forward with implementing more standards,” Caswell said. “Our counties are pretty strapped right now.”
Lawmakers acted almost exactly a year after a group appointed by Snyder recommended establishing a commission to make sure Michigan improves legal aid for low-income defendants. The 14-member panel told Snyder that the current system results in too many errors at the trial level and can lead to wrongful convictions.
The votes drew praised from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and other advocates.
“This day has been decades in the making,” said Marcela Westrate, executive director of the Michigan Campaign for Justice. “Serious problems have plagued Michigan’s indigent defense system for many, many years – wasting tax dollars, threatening public safety, stealing years of freedom from peoples’ lives and compromising every citizen’s constitutional rights.”
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