It sounds like a lot of money, the $74.4 million that Michigan’s counties spend annually on indigent defense. But when one considers that only amounts to $7.35 per capita, it sounds like peanuts.
Michigan is far behind the national average, when it comes to spending on indigent defense, according to the House Fiscal Agency in its analysis of House Bill 5676, which would create a statewide public defense system to provide appointed counsel to eligible people. The bill was introduced late last year and was discussed by the House judiciary committee in December. It will be on the committee’s agenda again March 16.
The national average for spending on indigent defense is $11.86 per person; Michigan ranks 44th out of the 50 states, according to the HFA. To bring Michgian up to average, the counties would have to spend $120 million. Again, that sounds like a lot of dough, unless we consider that it’s only $22 per capita.
Even in depressed economic times, that just doesnt sound like a lot of money to spend on adequate funding of our justice system. And it does make sense that by spending so little, we’re not getting the value we deserve. By under-supporting indigent defense, we prop up a system which is often riddled with errors in sentencing, and in which the accused are represented by lawyers who frankly can’t make a living if they put in the hours it would take to properly do the job.
According to the HFA, the state’s 83 counties have wildly varying compensation rates for lawyers who work in indigent defense. On the low end is $40 per hour in Eaton County. On the high end is $88.82 per hour in Ottawa County. And I suppose that a lawyer can make a middle class living earning $40 an hour. But also in the mix are the fee (or event) schedules, and low-bid flat-fee contracts, which lead to very low pay per hour, if the work is being done properly.
“National recommendations indicate that compensation levels for public defense attorneys should be more on par with those of the prosecution,” according to the analysis.
The bill calls for the estabishment of a Public Defense Commission, a State Office of Public Defense and Appellate Defense Bureau, and the establishment of regional offices to appoint public defense sttorneys. Attorneys would be assigned to cases based on experience and training, and the bill would prohibit excessive case workloads. All costs associated with public defense would shift to the state, according to the HFA.
“Because of ongoing budget constraints and lack of oversight from the state, the amount counties currently pay for public defense is more a function of what their budgets will allow rather than what would truly be considered ‘reasonable,'” stated the analysis.
In the long run, and possibly not-so-long run, the statewide system could actually save money. According to the analysis, the State Appellate Defender Office had reported that between 2003 and 2007, SADO had achieved a cumulative reduction in minimum prison terms (as a result of sentencing errors) of 122.5 years. If it’s assumed that the average cost of incarceration is $30,000 per inmate per year, SADO helped the state save $3.675 million in just five years.
There would also be a savings resulting from a reduction in wrongful convictions, the analysis said.
I’ve got my doubts as to whether or not this bill has any legs. It will be easy for some lawmakers to dismiss it, calling it too expensive. But even if there was no cost savings from spending money to adequately fund defense, and even if taxpayers had to totally absorb the additional $5 per person per year to cover the costs, it would be worth every nickel.
That’s the cost of justice.