Michigan Legislation For Indigent Defense

In the ongoing saga to fix the indigent defense system, the Michigan State Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up bills today that would change the current system in Michigan.

Currently, individual judges give flat-rate contracts for indigent defense, which creates issues with the quality of representation (or lack thereof). "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 new legislation, "lawyers’ workloads would be better controlled, and financial incentives or disincentives leading attorneys to short-change defendants 'shall be avoided.'" Additionally, the legislation "would create an independent, permanent state commission to establish standards ensuring effective counsel is given to low-income defendants. Lawyers’ ability, training and experience would have to match the nature and complexity of the case assigned, for example."

Counties are leery of the changes because they still have to pay the costs for indigent defense under the new legislation, and they fear that these changes could create an even greater cost. Note that "Michigan is among just seven states to provide no state funding for trial-level public defense services," and "83 counties spent about $75 million to $80 million in 2009 on criminal defense for the poor, ranking 44th-lowest nationally."

I agree that the current system could use an update, but creating new legislation that compels the counties to act without opening the purse strings may not be the best way. Michigan needs to bite the bullet and become one of the 43 other states that have state-level funding for indigent defense. If the State of Michigan wants a skilled attorney base to represent indigent people, they need to be willing to pay.

CBS Detroit -- Push Continues To Fix Michigan's Indigent Defense


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