New agency needed for criminal defense, according to report

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Michigan needs a new state agency to set and enforce standards for attorneys who represent poor criminal defendants, a commission said last Friday after studying the state's court-appointed system for lawyers.

Michigan's defense of people who can't afford an attorney has been widely criticized for uneven treatment of lawyers and people accused of crimes. Counties set the rules and pay the bills, which leads to disparities in pay and performance depending on location.

The Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, created last year by Gov. Rick Snyder, broke no new ground last Friday on the critical issue of money. The group said the cost of court-appointed counsel should remain in the hands of local government with some room for help from Lansing.

The most significant recommendation is the launch of a new agency dedicated to indigent defense. With an executive director and staff, the agency would investigate the local work of court-appointed lawyers and set standards that meet the constitutional rights of the accused.

"If the Legislature and the governor go along with it, it's going to be important," said Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills and commission member.

Kary Moss, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, called it a "necessary first step."

"Obviously the effort to set a constitutionally defensible system will take some time. ... We've never had the ability to measure and watch what happens in the counties," she said.

In 2011, a coalition called the Michigan Campaign for Justice released a book that told the stories of nine people whose convictions were overturned based on evidence that wasn't discovered or pursued at trial. Attorneys didn't have time or money to do an adequate job.

In an example of the struggles that some lawyers have, the state appeals court in January ordered a Charlevoix County judge to pay a defense lawyer who had worked 710 hours in a highly contested murder case.

F. Martin Tieber, a lawyer who specializes in appeals, said money is critical to fixing court-appointed defense.

"The report hits all the right notes," he said, "but without a commitment from the governor and the state Legislature to adequately fund the defense of the poor, we will continue to lock up innocent people, and we will continue to lock up the guilty for crimes greater than what they actually committed and for periods longer than what the law requires."

The governor said he would read the report and work with the Legislature on the recommendations.

Published: Tue, Jun 26, 2012