Op-Ed: Public defender services stink
ANN ARBOR — Everyone who has ever seen a TV courtroom drama knows that if you are charged with a crime and are too poor to afford a lawyer, the state will appoint one for you.
Yet if you think that means everyone gets “equal justice under law,” you are sadly mistaken — especially if you live in Michigan. A just-released, extensive new study of public defender programs in the state has revealed shocking failures in the system.
“This is a disgrace. Michigan has utterly failed to live up to its constitutional obligations,” said David Carroll, who is director of research for the non-profit National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which did the study for the state Legislature.
The report found that the state, which once prided itself on the modernity and effectiveness of its justice system, is close to being worst in the nation in terms of its public defender services. Michigan spends less per capita to defend people than all but six other states.
The title of their final report pretty effectively captures it all: “A Race to the Bottom: Speed and Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis.” Among other horrors, the investigation found:
- In Chippewa County, the district court provides no confidential meeting space where a court-appointed lawyer can meet with his or her clients. Instead, “most attorneys wait in line to bring their clients, one-by-one, into the unisex restroom across from judge’s chambers.” Others settle for whispering in the corridor.
- In Ottawa County, there isn’t even much effort to pretend that an “adversarial contest” exists between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Instead, “indigent defense services has devolved to the point where defense attorneys call the prosecuting attorney and ask him to have law enforcement conduct further investigations rather than conducting independent investigations themselves.” Ottawa’s system has become such a farce that the day on which arraignments are held is known locally as “McJustice Day.”
- Michigan has utterly failed to follow American Bar Association principles requiring that public defense attorneys have properly experience and training to match the case.
Much of the problem, the study found, is related to the fact that Michigan is one of only six states where all the public defender costs are borne by the individual counties. The association’s study looked intensively at 10 counties, from the most urban to the most rural. (Grand Traverse County was one of these; it was neither the best or most terrible.) “All were inadequate, but some were far worse than others,” Carroll said. He feels strongly that Michigan needs to move to an entirely state-funded public defender system.
That would certainly cost more money than the state is spending now — at least in the short run.
But not only could a few “wrongful imprisonment” lawsuits be very expensive, the fundamental principle of government is supposed to be the impartial administration of justice.
“Without a functioning adversarial justice system, everyday human error is more likely to go undiscovered and result in the tragedy of innocent people being tried, convicted and imprisoned,” the report’s executive summary read.
The report’s findings were generally endorsed by those in the legal trenches.
“The contempt for the legal system shown by the (Chippewa County) commissioners is remarkable,” one experienced Upper Peninsula defense attorney said.
“Several years ago they spent monies to air condition the dog pound. They refuse to air condition the circuit court room. Trials in the summer are like working in a sweat lodge … (additionally) the acoustics and lighting are bad and make trial work difficult.”
Anna Marie Anzalone, a public defender in Lenawee County, said she agreed with the report.
“I love my job and have no intention of quitting (but) the state provides so many resources to the prosecutor’s office,” while the county, “already overburdened, is responsible for compensating the public defenders.”
Last year she handled 311 felony cases. As in many counties, she doesn’t get an hourly rate.
“We are paid as a contract employee, a monthly fee. No extras at all. I would just love to have a secretary.”
The Legal Aid and Defender Association launched their evaluation after it was requested by State Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt) two years ago. Now that the results are in, what happens?
Possibly nothing. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Clifford Taylor told the Detroit News that it “may not be possible” to enact many of the recommendations, because there is no money.
And a spokesman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm called the findings “sobering” but said she needed time to study them.
Time is not what a lot of the defendants who can’t afford proper counsel have on their side.
As a final note — as part of the project — the association attempted to determine how many people in Michigan used public defender services. Unfortunately, they couldn’t do that. In many counties, “nobody cared enough” to keep adequate records, Carroll said.