Indigent Defense Commission begins the hard work of ensuring standards in counties



PHOTO #1: Michigan Indigent Commission staff and chair: Marla McCowan, Director of Training, Outreach and Support who took a lead role at the meeting; current Executive Director Jonathan Sacks; and the new chair, Michael Puerner, general counsel for Hastings Mutual Insurance.

PHOTO #2: Two of the local people who serve on the MIDC: former Judge James Fisher, currently Of Counsel to Dickinson Wright’s Grand Rapids office and the immediate past chair of the commission; and Dr. David Schuringa, Director of North Star Ministry Consultants, LLC.

PHOTO #3: Kent County Assistant Administrator Mary Swanson spoke at the meeting about the plan the county submitted.

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) did something amazing on Jan. 5: completed its review of and recommendations on courts’ plans for complying with its first four standards ahead of schedule.

With 132 funding units submitting plans, and a wide range of approaches, the evaluation constituted a massive amount of work for the commissioners,  as well as for the MIDC staff. Nonetheless, a total of 39 plans scheduled to be reviewed Jan. 8 were completed at the Jan. 5 meeting.

And, according to commissioner Dr. David Schuringa, a former member of the Campaign for Justice initiative which provided some of the impetus for examining how Michigan provides counsel for those who cannot afford it, the MIDC?members performed their task with diligence.

“I’ve been amazed and very impressed at how much concern they have that tax dollars are used correctly,” Schuringa comments. “It’s a very hands-on commission. Often people who serve on boards just rubber-stamp the staff’s recommendation – and the staff here is really excellent.
But the commissioners really did a lot of work.”

Schuringa himself chaired one of three committees set up to do a deeper dive into plans submitted. The proposals had already undergone several layers of scrutiny, including by the MIDC senior staff, by the grants manager, and by the regional managers who have been working closely with many of the courts — in the case of Kent County, Chris Dennie fills that role.

Each submitted plan included a cost analysis, which is considered to predict roughly the financial requests court units will submit once this step in the process is completed. The submissions were therefore divided into three general categories: those which would be approved outright (for example, Muskegon County, approved at the MIDC’s Dec. 19 meeting); those which would be disapproved and returned to the unit for revision; and those where the plan was recommended for approval but the cost analysis was not.

Then the plans were given to one of three committees for further evaluation. Schuringa chaired the Ancillary Spending committee, which met three times between Dec. 19 and Jan. 5; the construction costs committee; and a committee concerning those which are likely to come in at very high numbers.

Kent County submitted one proposal on behalf of most of the funding units within the county, with the goal of gaining efficiency through collaboration.

This kind of collaboration and efficiency, of course, is something the MIDC?encourages, and there was talk about some other geographical areas doing the same, including at least one of the more populous counties on the east side of the state.

MIDC, which as reported in past issues stemmed from the recommendations of a task force chaired by local attorney and former Barry County Judge James Fisher, has a fully developed set of actions to meet the over-arching goal of ensuring that every person charged with a crime, regardless of income, has adequate legal representation as guaranteed in the Constitution.

The commission decided that initially, it would  propose just four standards courts would have to meet, standards on: education and training of defense counsel; the initial interview, particularly in terms of confidentiality; investigation and experts; and counsel at first appearance. Plans to meet these were required by Nov. 20, 2017.

Fisher and others worked with the legislature to make sure that indigent defense was not an unfunded mandate.

After Jonathan Sacks was hired as Executive Director and hired other staff, there was a temporary delay when the commission was moved from being under the Michigan Supreme Court to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The commission, chaired since 2011 by Judge Fisher, remained on task, however, and diligently sought comment on the four standards before approving them in May 2017.

Sacks has been instrumental in that process, but he has recently submitted his resignation in order to become the Director of the State Appellate Defender Office. At a special meeting Jan. 8, the MIDC interviewed two candidates to replace him.

Last Friday, several county and court administrators gave comments before consideration of the plans, including Ottawa County Court Administrator Kevin Bowling, Kalamazoo County Assistant Corpo-ration Counsel Amber Beebe, and Mary Swanson, the Assistant County Administrator for Kent County.

Swanson made the point in initial testimony and again when the Kent County plan came up for review, that, as she stated it, “Local units of government, as we take on state programs and see revenue losses ...  we can’t always absorb one more thing.” Therefore, some costs that the commission may not regard as qualified are actually necessary to meet the standards.

Many of the cost analysis evaluations centered on “supplanting versus supplementing” costs. So, for example, if a new employee must be hired to run the program, that is allowable; but if an existing employee takes on more work, that would not necessarily be rejected, but must be explained carefully.

Plans with cost analysis revisions are due back to the MIDC in 30 days.


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