Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 22, 2013

Locals skeptical over push to overhaul indigent defense

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Some local court officials are opposed to a push by lawmakers to overhaul trial-level indigent defense services and implement statewide standards.

A bill passed by the Senate and awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature forms a Michigan Indigent Defense Commission to create and enforce standards of legal representation for defendants who can’t afford an attorney. The state would fund any mandated changes above a jurisdiction’s baseline spending level calculated on its average spending the past three years, according to the legislation. The commission would establish procedures for collecting attorneys.

Michigan is one of seven states that don’t provide funding for trial-level public defense, according to the Michigan Campaign for Justice. A long-standing lawsuit against the state filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of all indigent defendants in Berrien, Muskegon and Genesee counties claims poor service violated the U.S. Constitution.

Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power doubts the defense program in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim counties could maintain its current quality if stripped of local control.

”Under this proposal, judges are excluded from the process of selecting attorneys, and the problem is that judges are the only neutral people who see these lawyers in action,” Power said. “I think the quality will go down.”

Power and fellow 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers currently monitor the court’s program, which compensates attorneys on an events basis, such as for the interview and investigation, conferences, plea and sentencing. Pay is roughly $800 for an attorney who represents a defendant who pleads guilty and is sentenced, Rodgers said. Appointed attorneys are paid by the half-day for trials, and capital case trials are paid at an hourly rate.

Rodgers said he’s not had problems recruiting competent attorneys to take cases, and judges remove attorneys when they don’t meet their expectations.

“What nobody seemed to want to talk about is this isn’t involuntary work anymore,” he said. “I see people who on our roster get substituted out as court-appointed lawyers for ‘real attorneys’, and those ‘real attorneys’ can’t hold a candle to the people that do this.”

Attorney Paul Jarboe said Grand Traverse County felony public defense cases account for 20 percent of his caseload. He called it a “privilege” to have served the community as a public defender for 15 years.

Jarboe is concerned the state would employ salaried attorneys who solely do public defense work.

”I think if you’re just doing public defense work and nothing else, I think you get a little jaded,” he said. “When you’re dealing with people who are retaining you, it makes you more responsive to what their needs are, and you pass that along to the indigent defendants.”

Eighty-sixth District Court officials issue flat-fee bid contracts for public defenders, who currently earn $250 a case in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties and $295 in Antrim County. District Court Judge Thomas J. Phillips said there’s good reason for the proposal to centralize procedures.

”The judges don’t pick the prosecutors and they shouldn’t pick the defense counsel,” Phillips said. “I think our system’s working here because we have good attorneys and they take cases all the way through jury trial and they work hard for their clients. I think it’s more of a statewide issue than a local issue.”