Shining the spotlight on funding for indigent defense

By John Minnis
Legal News

Julie Beck took a gamble when she moved back to Michigan from Las Vegas … and lost.

Beck, chief public defender for Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula, claims she was fired from her job last month because she had the audacity to ask for more help.

The deputy pubic defender, Rob Stratton, was made acting chief public defender until the Chippewa Board of Commissioners decides whether it is going to scrap the office altogether.

As the only remaining attorney in the public defender’s office in Sault Ste. Marie, Stratton has 1,000 cases to handle, more than half of them felonies, including two murders.

“It’s truly unfair what they did to him (Stratton),” said Beck, even though she was the one fired. “He’s got two homicide trials coming up. One was mine; one was his.”

Chippewa is one of three counties with public defender’s offices, Beck said. The other two are Washtenaw and Bay counties.

As is the case with most counties, Chippewa formerly contracted out its public defender work. In 1997, the public defender office was created as a money-saving measure. At the time, attorneys were refusing contracts and began charging hourly for their services.

The office was created with two attorneys and one administrative assistant.

The caseload at the time was 250 cases, including 50 felonies. Today, with four times the number of cases, the office still employs two attorneys.

Beck said that in past years she sought two additional part-time attorneys and a part-time investigator. This year, after having her pleas fall on deaf ears, she went for broke and asked for two full-time attorneys and a full-time investigator.

The county’s previous chief public defender was Elizabeth Church, a law school classmate of Beck’s.

When the deputy public defender position opened up in 2002, Beck applied for and got the job. She had been living in Las Vegas, having left a private practice in Monroe.
“I had enough beautiful weather and sunny skies,” Beck said somewhat wistfully following her termination.

When Church was elected judge of the 91st District Court in 2008, Beck was promoted to chief public defender.

Beck said the board of commissioners made it clear that either she or the public defender’s office, or more likely both, was on the chopping block.

Scott Shackleton, chairman of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners, said Beck wanted to double the budget of the public defender’s office, and at a time when funding is falling.

“We weren’t really satisfied with the direction of the office and with her as an administrator,” he said.

Shackleton said Beck was asked on several occasions if she could do the job with the resources she had. “She was quite adamant the answer was ‘No,’” Shackleton said. “We had to make a change.”

Beck said that as a public defender, she was ethically and legally bound to provide adequate representation, something she could not do with her limited staff. She sought help from Laura Sager, executive director of Campaign for Justice, a broad-based group of organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum fighting for a fair and effective public defense system in Michigan.

Sager said Beck stood up for the constitutional rights of her clients to effective defense representation and was fired for telling the truth.

 “Silencing Julie Beck will only further erode confidence in the fairness of our justice system, lead to costly errors due to time pressure and could result in compromising public safety by wrongfully incarcerating innocent individuals while the guilty remain free to strike again,” Sager said.  “The commission should reconsider and join forces with the forces working to reform the system.”

Michigan is one of just seven states that has shifted the full burden of funding public defense services onto the shoulders of the counties, Sager said.

In turn, the counties have shifted the burden to those dedicated defense attorneys — both public and private — who struggle to provide the best representation they can, often with decades-old fee structures, huge caseloads and few if any resources like investigators, expert witnesses or paralegal support.

Some defense attorneys have the courage to speak out, she said. But many private attorneys just stop taking cases because they can no longer do so either ethically or financially.

“We all pay for a public defense system that fails to meet even minimum national standards and that is chronically and severely underfunded,” Sager said. “Gov. Snyder is pledging to restructure state government — now is the time for county commissioners, judges and attorneys to join forces and tell the state that it should step up to this fundamental responsibility.”

As recently as January, the State Bar of Michigan’s Judicial Crossroads Task Force, in recommendations for transforming the state’s courts to meet 21st century realities, took Michigan’s public defender system to task.

“Michigan has tolerated an indigent defense system so lacking in resources,” the task force reported, “that assigned counsel can only occasionally provide the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the U.S. and Michigan constitutions, causing large downstream costs and the risk of costly litigation.”

The Judicial Crossroads Task Force recommended advocating “for the state’s full assumption of funding for the constitutionally mandated right to counsel for juveniles and indigent defendants.”

A 2008 report, “A Race to the Bottom: Speed and Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis,” by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, found Michigan ranked 44th, behind Alabama and Georgia, in per capita public defense funding.

“With each passing day, Michigan’s public defense system is crumbling under the strain of tight budgets and under-resourced systems, and Michigan residents are bearing this burden,” said David Carroll, research director for the NLADA.

According to the House Fiscal Agency, Michigan counties collectively spend $74.4 million on indigent defense services. This amounts to approximately $7.35 per capita, which is 38 percent below the national average of $11.86. Under Michigan’s current system, counties would have to collectively spend $120.1 million in order to match the national average indigent defense cost per capita.

Because of ongoing budget constraints, and lack of oversight from the state, the amount counties pay for public defense is more a function of what their budgets will allow rather than what would truly be considered “reasonable,” according to the HFA.

In Beck’s case, not only was the funding not up to national standards, neither was the staffing. State and federal guidelines call for public defenders to handle no more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors in a year. Beck and her deputy public defender found themselves handling some 250 felonies a year each, not counting some 500 misdemeanors.

In an effort to address Michigan’s indigent defense system, House Bill 5676, the Michigan Public Defense Act, was introduced by Rep. Bob Constan, D-Dearborn Heights, in 2009 and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it languished without action.

Under HB 5676, the State of Michigan would be responsible for all costs of public defense services through the creation of a Public Defense Fund. The Office of Public Defense would annually submit a budget proposal, and the Legislature would annually make an appropriation to ensure that the public defense delivery system is adequately funded statewide.

During the lame duck session last fall, the Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-Dewitt, introduced a substitute for House Bill 5033, an unrelated bill that dealt with mortgage foreclosures.

The substitute would have created an Indigent Defense Counsel Commission to “study and make recommendations regarding providing a flexible, cost-effective, and fiscally responsible indigent defense delivery system that is responsive to and respectful of jurisdictional variations and local community needs and interests.” 

The substitute bill, however, failed to get action in the House.

“There simply wasn’t enough time to address it properly in the waning hours of lame duck,” Sager said.

Elizabeth Lyon, director of governmental relations for the State Bar, said the Indigent Defense Counsel Commission proposal, which stems from an agreement between the State Bar and the Michigan Judges Association, might be reintroduced this legislative session.

On Monday, Feb. 14, the Chippewa County Board approved a Request for Proposals for contracting out the public defense work as the county once did. Shackleton said it might turn out, depending on the RFPs received, that an in-house public defender is still the least expensive way to go.

“That still may be true,” he said. “I guess we want to know. We’re investigating that. We may very well maintain a public defender.”

The county board chairman said he would be all in favor of the state picking up the public defense tab from the counties.

“That would be one expense off our shoulders,” he said.

Beck indicated she was dismayed that the proposed Michigan Public Defense Act would not go so far as to create public defender offices in each county, but she did support the state funding provision for public defense.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, “but it is not going to solve the problem.”

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