Reforms to state indigent defense system signed by governor

 On Monday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation to bring sweeping reforms and improvements to indigent defense in Michigan, helping protect every citizen’s right to competent legal representation in criminal defense cases.

 
The legislation will enable and set statewide standards and accountability measures for public defense attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants and create a uniform process to verify that all 83 counties meet the standards.
 
“Every citizen has a right to competent legal counsel, regardless of the ability to pay.  That is the meaning of ‘justice for all.’ For too long in Michigan, many indigent defendants have not received the level of legal representation that they deserve,” Snyder said. “Today, we’re taking action to fix that problem and improve the state’s public defense system, upholding our Constitutional responsibility to the accused and their families and ensuring justice and public safety as well accountability to taxpayers.”
 
House Bill 4529, now Public Act 93 of 2013, sponsored by state Rep. Tom McMillan, creates the commission. It will be housed within the judicial branch of state government and comprised of 15 members appointed by the governor with recommendation of the Legislature, Supreme Court, the state bar, and representing interests from the criminal justice system. The chief justice or a designee would also serve as an ex-officio non-voting member.
 
The commission will be charged with:
 
• Collecting and compiling data necessary for the review of indigent defense services in Michigan.
 
• Creating standards to ensure all systems providing indigent defense meet constitutional obligations for effective assistance of counsel.
 
• Submitting for approval any new standards to the Michigan Supreme Court, creating an added layer of review.
 
• Developing requirements by which a person may establish a claim of indigence so those truly in need of a public defender will have access to one.
 
• Working with counties to implement plans to meet the standards.
 
“Serious problems have plagued Michigan’s indigent defense system for many years, wasting tax dollars, threatening public safety, stealing years of freedom from peoples’ lives and compromising every citizen’s constitutional rights,” said Marcela Westrate, executive director of the Michigan Campaign for Justice, a non-partisan coalition of groups that has worked to reform indigent defense services in Michigan. “Now, with the Governor’s signature, Michigan’s new permanent Indigent Defense Commission can begin its critically important work making our system more transparent, accountable, efficient and, most importantly, constitutional.”
 
Senate Bill 301, sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Caswell, revises existing law that requires a court to assign counsel to an indigent person charged with a criminal offense to conform to HB 4529. It is now PA 94.
 
In 2011, Snyder issued an executive order that established a 14-member Defense Advisory Commission to examine how to improve legal representation provided to low-income criminal defendants in Michigan. The governor renewed his call to reform indigent defense in a March 2012 special message on public safety. 
 
The commission formed under EO 2011-12 made its recommendations in June 2012, calling for Monday’s changes to the state's indigent defense system.
 
Visit legislature.michigan.gov for more information on these bills.

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