A surprise objection

Last week, the Michigan House of Representatives judiciary committee took up for the first in what certainly will be many discussions on a statewide funding and oversight structure for indigent defense.

Among the supporters were a host of nonprofit advocacy groups, the NAACP, Ruth Lloyd-Harlin who is the sister of Michigan’s first DNA exoneree Eddie Joe Lloyd. Retired judges and law school deans supported the proposed bill.

The sole objection was a surprise — William J. Winters III, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, who wrote a letter to the committee expressing his views (not those of the association) and concerns over the possible politicization of indigent defense. Thinking that the state-funded system would be free of undue political preference is a “hopeless illusion,” Winters wrote, adding that no legislation can eliminate the distinctly human traits of nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.

Though he doesn’t claim that the system is adequately funded as it is now, Winters wrote that he doesn’t see how statewide funding will make the situation any better.

The proposal could be taken far more seriously if its proponents summoned the political courage to fund this new system with an increased tax on legal products and services which directly and disproportionately contribute to crime: the beer, wine and spirits industry and casino ‘gaming’ interests. These purveyors of misery and despair have enjoyed a tax haven in our state for far too long. A fair and reasonable tax is overdue, but these competing interest groups are apparently off-limits because they are too powerful to take on. Instead, proponents take the easy way out: they want defendants, most of whom are desperately poor, to fund the system.

Winters addresses the pink elephant in the room, a simple reality that few want to discuss: Michigan’s pool of money is shrinking. Within those limits, what legislator would put an unpopular population — those charged with crimes, some of whom are (gasp) guilty — over the interests of populations to which we pay plenty of lip service — in particular, school children? We can’t, or won’t, even adequately fund our schools if it means paying higher taxes. Is it possible that we’ll have the political stones to adequately fund indigent defense?

Read Winters’s entire letter here.

NLADA report paints ugly picture of state’s public defender system

A year-long study of the public defender systems in 10 Michigan counties concludes that not one of them is providing constitutionally adequate services.

The title of a report prepared by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), A Race to the Bottom: Speed & Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis, says it all. Executive summary here.

Attorney-client conferences taking place in unisex public restrooms. Arraignments moving so fast that the locals in one county refer to the sessions as “McJustice Day.” Prosecutors offering plea deals for time already served before the accused even sees an attorney. Appointed counsel asking the cops to investigate clients’ cases rather than doing the gumshoeing on their own. Lawyers groveling before judges to keep a steady stream of appointments coming their way. Flat fee contracts that set up conflicts of interest between zealous representation and the bottom line.

Welcome to the nightmare world of Michigan’s public defender system, according to the NLADA report.

The report doesn’t reveal anything that Michigan’s criminal justice community doesn’t already know: defendants who are broke get short shrift by an overwhelmed system that is short on cash and supervision.

It’s the rest of the state that needs to get on board. And there are good reasons to do that. From an NLADA fact sheet:

“Every Resident Impacted – The ripple effect of this broken criminal justice system is far-reaching and extends to every Michigan resident. By failing to meet its responsibility for funding and overseeing a vital part of the justice system, the state is wasting taxpayer money and endangering public safety.

“Fiscally Irresponsible – Taxpayers shell out millions of dollars to foot the bill for delays, mistakes and lawsuits that result from the broken public defense system. One such lawsuit forced the state and Wayne County to pay out more than $4 million to a man who had been wrongfully convicted.

“Public Safety at Risk – In recent years, several wrongful convictions have come to light, exposing the state’s failure to provide for a functioning justice system that keeps communities safe. The impact extends far beyond the defendant: when an innocent person is imprisoned, the real criminal remains on the streets.”

There’s reason to believe that we’ll see some steps in the right direction. The Legislature asked for this report, presumably knowing full well what the conclusions and recommendations would be. And the NLADA’s number one recommendation is to begin legislative hearings “to address current funding and oversight failures in order to begin to create a fair and efficient system that protects the welfare of all Michigan residents.”

There are no easy, quick fixes.

But trying to sweep the public defender mess under the carpet will only leave a large, easy-to-see, completely unconstitutional lump.