Long-time Grand Rapids attorney excited about being Muskegon's public defender

 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
It would be difficult to find a more enthusiastic supporter of Muskegon County’s new Public Defender’s office than the Public Defender himself.
“As I’ve gotten to know what we’re doing better, meeting the people involved, it’s getting really exciting, both as a concept in and of itself and in the particulars. It’s an opportunity to build something new,” says Fred C. Johnson, who was hired at the end of the summer.

“The system is great for the attorneys who serve as public defenders, great for the courts, and the clients will be treated more like customers, and getting the rights they deserve.”

Johnson, formerly of Love and Johnson Law Firm in Grand Rapids, will draw on years of legal experience to run an office of twelve assistant public defenders and three support staff, including a coordinator who is also an attorney.

The opportunity results from Muskegon County’s recognition that the way indigent defendants were being handled needed improvement. A wake-up call came in the form of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state over its indigent defense system, in which Muskegon was named as among the worst.

At about that same time (the spring of 2012), Governor Snyder accepted recommendations from the Michigan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, which was chaired by retired Barry County Judge, now Law Weathers attorney, James H. Fisher. It seemed clear that Muskegon County needed to make a change. 

“The board of commissioners brought this to my attention and said they wanted to do something about it,” says Bonnie Hammersley, the Muskegon County Administrator. “We pulled together a work group including the private contract attorneys serving as public defenders, court administrators and a representative from the Prosecutor’s office, among others.”
The work group decided it would be effective to explore what other counties were doing, so they looked at Ottawa, Kent and Washtenaw. After consideration, Hammersley recommended to the Muskegon County Board
of Commissioners to follow Washtenaw’s model, which involved creating an in-house department mirroring the Prosecutor’s office.

In the new Muskegon County system, public defense attorneys will be paid employees of the county, as opposed to the contracted attorneys currently in place. These attorneys often have to maintain their outside practices  in order to do well financially, taking time and attention away form indigent defense.

The defenders will be assisted by interns/externs drawn from local law schools, as well as potentially from other sources, such as those who have taken the bar and are awaiting results. These assistant will perform tasks that do not require a lawyer,  such as research or clerical tasks, and take some of the pressure off the assistant public defenders.

This will help address the enormous work load each contractor had to take on in the past, Johnson says, which involved something like 1,000 cases a year.

The highly successful Washtenaw County Office of the Public Defender has been around since 1971. Lloyd Powell, the Washtenaw Public Defender, has received multiple awards including the State Bar’s Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Public Service Award in 2009, which in part reflect the program’s success under his long-term leadership.

The office’s website says it exists “in order to achieve justice where rights are protected, due process is received fairly and equally, rehabilitation is effective, [and] recidivism is reduced.”

Washtenaw is one of only two counties approaching indigent defense in just this way. The other is the very small county of Chippewa.

And, as of Jan. 1, Muskegon County will join them. Muskegon County officials saw many advantages with this system. Interviews with local judges conducted during the work group’s investigation indicated that they would prefer to take the courts out of the hiring process, both saving time and reducing the possibility of conflicts of interest. As a story in the Grand Rapids Legal News affiliate for Washtenaw County stated, “Ingham County District Court Judge Thomas Boyd...said one reform he thinks will be the first standard enacted [after the Indigent Defense Commission report] is to separate the judiciary from the process of how indigent clients are assigned their attorneys.  Boyd said it’s important that judges not be involved because of potential conflicts of interest.”

The courts will benefit because defenders will be more available in terms of scheduling, and will have more time to devote to fuller preparation of each case.

And another huge advantage is to the public defenders themselves; many of those hired so far are Muskegon lawyers who have been involved with public defense before. They will receive benefits, which the former contractors did not. The assistance of the interns will free the defenders up to do what they do best, and they will also be supported in seeking, and encouraged to seek, further training and skills development.
However, it is the indigent population eligible for such representation that will benefit the most, says Johnson.

Johnson is so passionate about the job he says he even dreams about it. A proud native of Grand Rapids, he is temporarily renting a room in Muskegon pending buying a house, and has found that he loves the area. “Muskegon is a terrific community and the secret hasn’t gotten out yet,” he says.

“I came from a job where I was very happy, I was moving right along and I loved the people I worked with on both sides of the  bar. And at the age of 56, I didn’t really expect to be making a change,” he reflect. “But once I got this position — it’s really rejuvenating. And I think it’s a great place to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Johnson graduated from University of Michigan in 1979 and from Cooley Law School in 1983.

He joined the U.S. Navy after that because, he says, it offered the fastest track to actual trial practice. He was stationed with the JAG?Corps in Japan. When he came back in 1989, he spent less than a year in the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office, and then started a firm with partners John Beason and Pablo Ferrer.

After that firm disbanded, he did a three-year stint with the Michigan Parole Board, and then went back to private practice, establishing Love and Johnson with an office on Wealthy Street.

One of the areas Johnson is most excited about is the ability do conduct outreach, for which he  and the newly-hired coordinator will be responsible. “I?think the public defense system lost the battle of public opinion, and that’s why there are so many funding challenges. We’re going to be getting out in the community, going to Cinco de Mayo and the Michigan Irish Festival, to service clubs, meeting with community movers and shakers. We can get the word out about the services we offer as well as explaining the value of public defense In setting up this office, you have a place where the buck stops.”

He feels that doing this kind of work might have precluded some of the problems that came up from the Muskegon County Bar Association, which formally disapproved of the plan last August. Hammersley confesses that she may have been naive in forming the work group, thinking that the attorneys represented were in communication with MCBA.

But, says Hammersley, “We believe that once the office gets going, some of these problems will be resolved. Every change has bumps and challenges, and I appreciate that, but working closely with Fred, I think we can make sure we provide improved service to the courts as well as to the indigent clients.”

She added, “All of us at the county are very happy with our choice of Fred for the position.”

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