Snyder appoints commission to investigate improvements in indigent defense

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

A new commission appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder will investigate ways to improve legal representation of low-income criminal defendants.

The Indigent Defense Advisory Commission will help resolve Michigan's "longstanding, chronic structural right to counsel deficiencies," the research director for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association said.

"This is a public safety issue," said David Carroll, in a news release. "When an innocent person is sent to prison as a result of public defenders not having the time, tools and training to effectively advocate for their clients, the true perpetrator of the crime remains free to victimize others and put public safety in jeopardy."

The commission will also recommend ways to ensure such legal representation is consistent across the state.

"A core principle of our criminal justice system is to guarantee that an individual charged with a crime be entitled to legal representation, even if they are unable to hire private counsel," Snyder said in a statement. "The Commission will work to ensure that all criminal defendants receive effective assistance of counsel."

Former Barry County Chief Judge James Fisher, of Hastings, will chair the commission. The four appointed legislators are Sen. Bruce Casell, R-Hillsdale; Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit; Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills; and Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipson, D-Huntington Woods.

Julie Fershtman, president of the State Bar of Michigan, said the commission is a significant step forward in guaranteeing that Michigan has a criminal justice system that works for all and upholds core Constitution rights for Michigan's citizens.

Michigan currently delegates its trial-level duties to its counties. But Carroll said the state now neglects to provide any type of meaningful supervision or accountability for the work of public defense lawyers, and it refuses to make available on-going training to keep attorneys abreast of ever-evolving criminal justice sciences.

"And public attorneys are often beholden to the trial judge for their paycheck, creating a direct conflict between the lawyer's own personal financial well-being and his ethical duty to advocate solely on behalf of his client," he said.

The commission includes four lawmakers and 10 members representing the judiciary, prosecuting attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, the State Bar of Michigan, local governments, and the general public.

Commission members hail from Okemos, Rochester Hills, Kalamazoo, Sylvan Lake, Brighton, Grosse Pointe Park, Dearborn, Portland, and Chelsea.

"Although this is well meaning, I am very disappointed at the lack of representation on the commission of people from urban areas who are working and dealing with these issues on a daily basis," said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy.

Recommendations from the commission are due to the governor and legislature by July 15, 2012.

Published: Thu, Oct 20, 2011