63rd District Court will pilot earlier defender involvement for indigent

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 Administrator Kevin McKay and Magistrate Michael Milroy, Magistrate, in Milroy’s courtroom at the 63rd District Court on East Beltline

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The hypothesis is simple: if defense attorneys appointed to represent the indigent can be brought into the process before arraignment, some misdemeanor cases may be resolved earlier and take less court time.

But for the administrator, judges and magistrate at the 63rd District Court, which will be piloting a project to appoint attorneys earlier in the process, the most important result is that the defendants will have better representation.

Says Administrator Kevin McKay, “We’ll have to look at our numbers to find out if it resolves cases faster, if it involves fewer hearings, but at a minimum it’s going to protect those defendants’ rights better. And that’s a legitimate goal, it’s their constitutional right.”

He, along with Judges Steven Servaas and Sara Smolenski, and Magistrate Michael Milroy are, on the other hand, very much interested in improving efficiency. McKay says there is one way in which it cannot fail to make things easier.

“During arraignments, Mike Milroy’s court is really busy, and the people have a lot of questions. People are trying to figure out exactly what’s going on, the purpose of the arraignment, what the offense is and what the punishment is, what their options are. If they had representation, it might speed that process up.”

Milroy confirms that view. “I spend a lot of time answering procedural questions. People want to know what to expect as they go through the court,” he says. “It will be better for them to get that from an attorney, better all around.”

McKay believes that the study they will conduct as part of the pilot project will show that it is a win-win, allowing defendants better access to justice while making the busy court more

efficient.

And efficiency is important in terms of the source of the funding, which is the Michigan Supreme Court State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). The grant of almost $34,000 comes from monies intended for Court Performance Innovation, according to McKay, and will ultimately help “save staff time and taxpayer money,” he says.

The 63rd District Court McKay compliments Judges Smolenski and Servaas on always being willing to participate in pilot projects, generally those proposed by SCAO. McKay adds, “There are some things that I’m willing to say, hey, let’s try it – if the state is going to provide some funds for projects we’d really like to do anyway, and we can get out ahead of the curve and get them done and then evaluate them for the SCAO, it’s a win-win.”

In order to install this particular practice, the court first had to clear some logistical hurdles. For example, how would they be able to get the “Request for Court-Appointed Attorney” form to offenders, and process approvals, early enough?

Working with the sheriff’s office and the Kent County Office of the Public Defender, with which the court has just signed an agreement, McKay determined that it should work to have the officers at the jail give out the form right away to those who have been arrested, along with showing them the video they currently do about their rights including right to counsel. When the court opens at 8:00, they will have a list of those who are involved in their cases and immediately review the requests.

Guided by MCR 6.005, Magistrate Milroy and McKay, who serves as back-up magistrate, will make a determination of eligibility, and quickly obtain a public defender for those who  qualify.

Another problem to be worked out is how to include attorneys in the video arraignments the 63rd utilizes in order to cut down on transport of offenders. It is not feasible for attorneys to join the defendant at the jail, and may prove challenging for them to come to the 63rd District Court building, so McKay has had to develop a way to do a three-way video, with the attorney remaining in his or her office.

The pilot project begins March 1 and goes until September of this year. There is no commitment to continue beyond that point, so the evaluation phase will be highly instructive. If the anticipated benefits materialize but there are continuing costs, the court will have to explore whether there is money in the budget or additional grant money will be required.

The administration team will be looking at whether the arraignments take less time and other factors. “Does it resolve cases faster, are there fewer hearings as a result? Or by having counsel there will we see fewer people pleading guilty and maybe spend even more time? We’ll just have to wait and see what the study shows,” McKay comments. “At a minimum, it’s going to protect those defendants’ rights more, but will that cost more, or less, or will it be a wash? Finding that out is why we’re willing to do these pilots.”

The 63rd District Court covers all of Kent County except the cities of Grand Rapids, Walker, Grandville, Wyoming and Kentwood. McKay says there was talk of the legislature adding a third judge, but he is not sure where that currently stands.

This means that there are bottlenecks for the people using the court, but McKay says the court has some innovative solutions coming up.