I was so naïve! I had been a reporter for nearly 30 years. In that time I covered the police beat, and I covered court activities. How the poor were being treated never entered my mind. Then, in 1995 I headed up an effort to help an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana who had been wrongly convicted and was incarcerated in Michigan. It was an eye-opener!
I was appalled at the lack of legal assistance granted to Maurice Carter. His court-appointed attorney did nothing to help, failed to properly question the key witness in the case, and had a reputation for falling asleep in the courtroom. When Maurice attempted to appeal, based on ineffective work by his attorney, the court gave him THE SAME LAWYER to file the appeal! He filed it late, missing the deadline. Later, I learned that these conditions were not just evident in Berrien County.
Many years later, it is no surprise for me to learn that Michigan has been ranked as one of the worst states in the U.S. on spending to help defend the poor in court. That’s why I’m suggesting, today, that you keep an eye on the Michigan Supreme Court, because, this afternoon, the court will hold a public hearing on indigent defense standards. The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s first standards for indigent defense delivery systems will be part of the Court’s agenda.
To help you understand what’s at stake here, I quote here from a March editorial in the Detroit Free Press:
The U.S. Constitution says that all defendants in court are entitled to adequate legal representation.
But in Michigan, that right is routinely violated because many poor defendants can't afford to hire an attorney or get adequate representation, according to a new survey released by a state commission.
The report by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is the first comprehensive statewide survey on the defense of poor people, said the commission. It found wide variations in how indigent people are represented across the state, with only 6% of district courts requiring an attorney at both the bail hearing and at arraignment. And only 15% have guidelines for continuing legal education standards for attorneys appointed to represent the needy.
The survey also turned up this information:
- Courts in Michigan have "loose and varied guidelines" to determine whether a defendant should get appointed counsel.
- Defendants denied an attorney have "no resource to further pursue assistance."
- There are only six public defender offices in the state.
- There is little consistency in the compensation for public defenders, with hourly rates ranging from $33 to more than $100.
- There's a conflict of interest in many cases involving appointed counsel, since only about a quarter of the courts have assigned counsel independent of the court.
- It's often difficult for defendants to meet privately with attorneys because of a lack of assigned meeting space.
I conclude this blog with three quotes.
Said Phil Locke, in The Wrongful Convictions Blog:
How much justice can you afford?” There’s no secret – the more you can pay for an attorney, the more effective your defense will be; and – if you’re actually innocent – the better your chances of a just outcome.
Said Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative:
“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Said Dr. H. David Schuringa, Christian Reformed pastor who represents the public on the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, in prepared testimony for the Supreme Court:
Michigan’s current state of affairs in indigent public defense is an affront to any reasonable person’s moral compass.
That’s it. In plain English. And it’s gotta change!