Questions remain about legal services for the poor

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Lawmakers have taken a step toward standardizing legal representation for low-income people accused of crimes.
The proposal by Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester, would establish an independent Michigan Indigent Defense Commission to issue minimum standards to ensure the constitutional rights of defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

County spending for indigent legal services.

“We have to be more ensuring that there is a reasonable defense for the indigents,” McMillin said.

According to a recent report by a state advisory commission, problems in the current system include a heavy workload for lawyers, lack of independence and lack of experience among those handling complex cases.
Meanwhile, each county determines what level of service is adequate and how each county will fund it.
Ogemaw, Manistee, Cass, Charlevoix and Emmet counties now spend the most per resident on such services.
Sanilac, Allegan, Muskegon, Houghton and Lenawee counties now spend the least.
Andrew Richner, a Detroit lawyer who sat on the advisory commission, said that because different philosophies exist in defense systems, “there has to be more accountability and consistency in the application of the court services.”
However, many county officials worry about the cost of changing the system.
The proposal originally would have required counties to spend at least $7.25 per resident per year toward indigent defense. That would be $9.5 million more than they allocate now, according to a legislative analysis by the House Fiscal Agency.
But McMillin said the revised version awaiting full House action eliminates the $7.25 minimum. It would require counties to only maintain funding at state’s three-year average. That figure may be a little lower than $7.25.
And McMillin said counties wouldn’t have to pay that average if they could prove they can meet the minimum standards at less cost.
Ben Bodkin, the director of legislative affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties, said its members already have difficulty paying for services that are mandated by the state. They would need corresponding funding from the state to afford any higher level of services that the proposed commission would require.
The advisory commission cited the “Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System” advocated by the American Bar Association as a model for indigent counsel services.
But Kevin Bowling, the Ottawa County Circuit Court administrator, said those principles are too general to implement in his county.
He said the bill would compromise the system Ottawa County is using to provide effective counsel for poor criminals, such as not allowing local judges who know cases well to decide what attorney to appoint.
“Some counties may have problems in their systems, but we don’t have those problems,” Bowling said. “We have a transparent system to identify competent lawyers who can fully represent defendants.”
Bowling said he wants a more precise cost plan and more concrete standards to advise counties what they would need to do before the proposal becomes law.
“We can’t make an informed decision until we have the opportunity to see if statewide standards could improve the system or make it worse,” he said.

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