Michigan Indigent Defense Case: The Importance of Funding

This spring, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union arguing that Michigan’s indigent defense system is unconstitutionally failing to provide fair and competent representation. Simultaneously, legislation is being considered in the state to alter funding arrangements and boost oversight. Most critically, it would shift the state from a county-based indigent defense system (like the one recently criticized by the NLADA in Idaho) to a state-wide system with equitable funding and standards for training and caseloads. The bill was introduced in December and was the subject of a public hearing by the House Judiciary Committee; however, it has seen no action since then.

Michigan’s indigent defense system relies heavily on private court-appointed attorneys – some 75% of cases in Detroit are taken by these lawyers, with the remainder being represented by attorneys with the Legal Aid & Defender Association. The funding at issue here is the rates being paid to the court-appointed attorneys, many of whom make this work the whole of their practice. The reimbursement rates are so low that many attorneys end up taking on excessively high caseloads and have very little time to actually meet with clients. For example, the rate guidelines only pay for one jail visit (and that is only $50), which means many defendants who are held in jail before or during a trial have very minimal access to their attorney. NPR ran a good story in August detailing the funding levels and the negative impact they have on representation.

It will be interesting to see if the Michigan Legislature acts before the Supreme Court hears the case this spring, or whether they wait to ensure their actions comply with whatever the court decides the minimum requirements must be. This issue is an increasingly common one in many states, and in other countries as well. We discussed very similar concerns in Canada earlier in January, where the funding crisis led to a boycott by court-appointed lawyers (in a heartening update, the boycott has ended after an agreement was reached to raise rates 40% for all cases and 66% for murder and arson over the next five years).

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