Today is “Constitution Day,” a day that we take note of the 220th anniversary of this remarkable document, along with the rights it provides and responsibilities it imposes.
Today is also the day that East Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, writing in The Lansing State Journal, has appropriately pointed out a sad truth: when it comes to discharging the constitutional duty to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive effective assistance of counsel, the state government has failed spectacularly.
McLellan has the credentials to make this indictment. He’s the chair of the Michigan Law Revision Committee, a member of the State Bar’s Public Policy Committee, and a former co-chair of the bar’s Justice Initiatives Committee.
And he’s got the data to make his case. A study of 10 counties’ public defender systems released earlier this year by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association concluded that not one of them was providing constitutionally adequate representation to criminal defendants who couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. In some counties, the picture isn’t pretty at all.
NLADA’s extensive report, originally requested by the Legislature, provides the state with an opportunity to both protect the rights of citizens and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently. We currently spend $2 billion a year on prisons. By taking common sense steps to provide residents with an adequate legal defense we can not only keep innocent men and women out of jail, we can avoid wasting millions.
Let us use Constitution Day to commit ourselves and our state to fully embracing both the benefits and the obligations our law provides.