Three years ago, the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association released a blistering critique of the manner by which 10 sample Michigan counties — including Oakland — provide legal counsel to those who are deemed unable to afford a defense attorney. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Snyder took a step in the right direction by appointing a 14-member panel — four members of which are from Oakland County — to study the issue of indigent criminal defense and tasking that body with making recommendations to his office and the state Legislature by the summer of 2012. We hope that, in the nine months or so the group has to formulate recommendations for improvement, a series of proposals come forth that will redress some of the issues raised in the June 2008 report.
In a news release issued earlier this month, Snyder said that the quality of legal representation for those who can least afford it varies greatly across the state, thereby necessitating the panel — which includes Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O’Brien, a Rochester Hills resident; Sylvan Lake attorney Judith Gracey; and state Reps. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) and Ellen Lipton (D-Royal Oak), along with 10 others.
The members of the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission represent the legislative and legal fields, as well as members of the general public. The panel will make recommendations for delivering cost-effective and qualified legal representation during each stage of the legal proceedings to the governor’s office and the state Legislature by July 15, 2012, under Executive Order 2011-12, which also stipulates that the commission will be dissolved by Dec. 31, 2012.
The executive order, issued on Oct. 13, tasks the commission with making recommendations that meet the following criteria:
• Being fiscally responsible and cost-effective while taking into account the current economic condition of the state and local units of government;
• Being responsive to jurisdictional variances and local community needs;
• Ensuring that indigent defense is free from undue political interference and conflicts of interest;
• Ensuring that the right to legal counsel is delivered by effective legal representation at each critical stage of the proceedings in a manner that is consistent throughout the state; and
• Striving to ensure that government-funded criminal defense attorneys are sufficiently trained and supervised, appropriately qualified, and adequately compensated.
The panel consists of 10 gubernatorial appointees, and four appointees of the Republican leaders of both the state House and state Senate — one Democrat and one Republican from each chamber. None serving on the commission will receive compensation for their service, although necessary travel expenses to and from meetings will be reimbursed according to pertinent state rules and statutes.
When the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association report, “A Race to the Bottom: Speed and Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis,” was released three years ago after a year-long study, many county and state officials in the legal system agreed with certain aspects of the report — including the poor pay for public defenders. Some county jurists disputed what they claimed was a misleading characterization of the oversight system in place for public defenders.
But putting that aside, there is little debate about the vacillating quality of the public defender system in the state. Three years ago, a slew of public officials and other members of the legal community agreed that improvements could be made to the system, one which is guaranteed under the Michigan and United States constitutions.
The variety of members on the new panel, as well as the diversity of the group’s geographic makeup (non-Oakland County members are from Hastings, Okemos, Kalamazoo, Brighton, Grosse Pointe Park, Dearborn, Portland, Chelsea, Fawn River, and Detroit), will offer a variety of perspectives on the situation as it currently stands, and will hopefully yield an equally diverse set of ways to address the discrepancies in effectuating a consistent and competent public defender system in Michigan.
Another positive aspect to the panel’s creation is that the members will serve unpaid, with the exception of a modest travel expenditure reimbursement — a small price to pay in difficult economic times for fresh ways of revamping the public defender system. In addition, the panel will be disbanded at the end of 2012, a move that will ensure a relatively speedy turn-around with proposals and that the body won’t languish in an already beefy state bureaucracy.
The Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, we hope, will put forward honest — and fiscally realistic — ways to improve the public defender system in Michigan.