ACLU Lauds Commission's Recommendations To Fix Michigan's Broken Defense System

June 22, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan lauded a report released today by the Governor’s Indigent Defense Advisory Commission that outlines comprehensive solutions to the state’s broken system for providing attorneys to poor people accused of crimes.

“Today’s report recommendations are another step forward in addressing a serious constitutional problem that has denied justice to far too many poor people in Michigan,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The commission has not only acknowledged that we have a problem, but outlined a roadmap for the legislature to ensure that our criminal justice system works for all Michiganders regardless of their economic status.”

In October 2011, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order establishing the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission. The Commission was charged with recommending improvements that will ensure the constitutional standard of qualified and consistent legal counsel for poor people in criminal cases throughout the state.

The Commission’s report is the latest in a string studies since the 1980s that have called on Michigan to change the way it provides lawyers for the poor. In 2008, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Michigan’s system had reached a “constitutional crisis.”

“For too long, Michigan has ignored the high cost of wrongful convictions,” said William Fleener, Cooley Innocence Project staff attorney. “Such convictions not only cost the state millions of dollars, but they also cost lives – the innocent men and women who are imprisoned, the families who suffer and the public that believes a crime has been solved.”

Currently, Michigan provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level. There is no training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. Often, attorneys have too many cases and insufficient resources to hire outside investigators or experts to adequately represent their client.

In response to these systemic flaws, the Commission recommended that the Governor and Legislature adopt legislation to, among other recommendations, create a permanent commission to establish and enforce minimum statewide standards with special care to ensure quality counsel for juveniles in the adult system and those with mental health issues. In addition, the Commission tasked the legislature to base all standards on the American Bar Association’s widely-accepted “10 Principles for an Effective Public Defense.”

For years, the ACLU of Michigan and its coalition partners have worked in the courts and the legislature to fix Michigan’s broken system. In 2007, the ACLU of Michigan and national ACLU filed a class action against the state on behalf of all indigent criminal defendants in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee Counties.

The lawsuit was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court and called on the court to declare the current public defense systems of the three counties unconstitutional and compel the state to assure representation consistent with national standards and constitutional norms.

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