Law
3:43 pm
Fri June 22, 2012

Snyder-appointed commission recommends better public defense for poor

A state commission adopted recommendations this morning to help ensure fair trials for people who can't afford to pay for an attorney.

Michigan's county-by-county indigent defense system is considered one of the worst in the country. The report calls for an independent agency to be a watchdog on counties' public defender systems -- and to step in when they fall short. It also calls for more training for public defenders, limiting caseloads and better compensation.
    
Judge James Fisher chaired the Michigan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission. He says the agency would set standards for every county to follow, “so that we can ensure that people have attorneys representing them who are capable, and adequately compensated, qualified, experienced, so forth.”

And the state should step in, he says, when counties don’t live up to the rules.

Republican state Representative Tom McMillin served on the commission. He says the Legislature will begin hearings on the recommendations this summer.

“When we’re looking at taking away somebody’s liberty and putting them in jail, I think that that’s an extremely, extremely high priority to ensure that we have as much equal justice as possible," he said.

He says it’s also critical to ensure that attorneys are independent from the judges hearing their cases.  

“When an attorney is counting on satisfying judges for their next appointment," he said, "there’s a question on whether that attorney is serving the best interests of the client who may end up in jail, or is some of that interest in satisfying the judge?"

McMillin and Democratic state Representative Ellen Cogan-Lipton say they’re already drafting legislation to create a commission and an agency to oversee indigent defense. 
       
Now, it’s up to the Legislature and Governor Snyder to enact the recommendations. Hearings could begin this summer. Fixing public defense in Michigan could cost taxpayers $50 million dollars.