By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday signed into a law a new layer of oversight aimed at improving trial-level public defense services available to poor residents, and he promised to move promptly to ensure Michigan follows through with the changes.
The legislation creates a permanent 15-member state commission – housed within the judicial branch and appointed by the governor – to review counties’ indigent defense services and create standards that counties must meet so counsel for defendants is brought up to par.
“This is about one’s constitutional rights to have competent legal counsel,” the Republican governor said. “Everyone deserves it. Everyone deserves appropriate justice.”
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 that helped work to pass the law.
Counties will have to fund indigent defense at the average level they spent in the three years before the creation of the commission, which will have full-time staff. The state plans to cover any additional costs for counties to upgrade their public defense systems, a tab Snyder said could run millions of dollars but is worthwhile.
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 conflicts of interest, according to a 2008 report commissioned by the Legislature.
“This is an issue of liberty. We have a system in Michigan that to some degree and in many areas of the state carelessly permits and we know has locked away the innocent,” said Rep. Tom McMillin, a Rochester Hills Republican and sponsor of one bill.
Defense lawyers’ workloads will be better controlled under the law, and financial incentives or disincentives leading attorneys to short-change defendants must be avoided. Lawyers’ ability, training and experience must match the nature and complexity of the case to which they are appointed.
The Michigan Supreme Court has to sign off on statewide standards set by the panel.
Snyder signed the legislation about a year after an advisory group he appointed said the current system results in too many errors at the trial level and can lead to wrongful convictions.
Snyder was joined at the signing ceremony in his office by legal and civil rights advocates and others, including Ruth Harlin. Her late brother, Eddie Joe Lloyd, was wrongfully convicted in 1985 for the murder and rape of a Detroit teen. Lloyd eventually was exonerated after DNA testing and released from prison in 2002.
“It’s not easy to forget how he was confined 17 years,” Harlin said. “I’m honored to be here today with the governor and see him sign this monumental victory for the ACLU, for the people of Michigan, for the Campaign for Justice. … You have to have a good heart to introduce a bill like this, to work diligently to have it pass.”
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