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The State of Indigent Defense In Michigan
For many years, Michigan’s public defense system was deficient, failing to guarantee the effective assistance of counsel required by the Sixth Amendment. Michigan delegated responsibility for providing indigent defense to individual counties, providing no statewide training for public defense attorneys, no performance standards to govern their practice, and no review of their performance. In 2008, after an extensive investigation, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association issued a report that concluded that Michigan’s systems were some of the nation’s worst.
While the NACDL had previously supported attempts to reform Michigan’s indigent defense system through litigation, those efforts were unsuccessful as the Michigan Supreme Court found that the responsibility for enacting reform rests with the legislature. However, the NACDL continued to work with organizations like The Michigan Campaign for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union to advocate for systemic change that will address the deficiencies in Michigan’s public defense system so that every indigent person charged with a crime in Michigan is no longer at risk of receiving constitutionally inadequate legal assistance.
In October 2011, following years of work by advocacy groups, Governor Snyder issued Executive Order 2011-12, establishing the initial Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, which was responsible for recommending improvements to the state’s legal system. Recommendations from the Advisory Commission served as the basis for legislation to address this need and called for the 15-member Indigent Defense Commission that the governor signed into law in July 2013, launching the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission Act can be found at MCL 780.981 - 780.1003.
The MIDC Act is comprehensive, and has a substantial mandate requiring the Commission to:
- Collect and compile data for the review of indigent defense services in Michigan
- Create minimum standards
- Work with counties to design plans to meet the standards and measure the performance of counties in providing public defense services
- Award state funded grants to county systems to fund the compliance plans and bring systems into compliance with the new minimum standards
The Commissioners were appointed in the summer of 2014, and named Jonathan Sacks as the first Executive Director of the Commission. Mr. Sacks and his staff began working in early 2015.
The Commission has proposed a first set of minimum standards, which cover training and education of defense counsel, initial client interviews, use of experts and investigators, and counsel at first appearance. Data collection has begun and will inform future minimum standards and best practices for indigent defense delivery in Michigan. Regional Consultants will be in place in early 2016 to facilitate compliance statewide.
Learn more about the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission at www.michiganidc.gov.