Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Views

May 8, 2013

Editorial: State obliged to provide criminal defense for indigent

They are ugly statistics that paint a picture of a state heading down an unsustainable —and unjust — path.

n As of 2011, Michigan spent $34,000 for every prisoner held in its bulging prison system and about $11,000 for a public school student - on average. Districts such as Traverse City get just $7,500 or so per year per student.

n Michigan is one of four states that spends more on prisons than higher education — $1.19 on corrections for every $1 spent on public universities and community colleges in a recent year. Only Vermont’s ratio was higher. Minnesota had the lowest, 17 cents on prisons for every $1 on higher education. Forty-five states spent more on higher education than prisons, according to the Pew Center on the States.

n Michigan spends about $2 billion a year on prisons; the percentage of the state General Fund allocated to Corrections in the 2009-2010 budget was 4.5 percent.

n There are more than 50,000 people in Michigan’s 49 prisons and prison camps. The Department of Corrections employs more than 16,000 people.

n Michigan’s 83 counties spent $75 million to $80 million in 2009 on criminal defense for indigent defendants, the 44th-lowest amount nationally.

Now, nearly five years after a study showed poor defendants are routinely processed through the state’s justice system without ever speaking to an attorney — let alone getting any meaningful legal advice — the Legislature is taking another stab at meeting its Constitutional obligations.

A group appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year recommended fixes, but they stalled in the Senate.

A new plan would create an independent, permanent state commission to establish standards ensuring effective counsel for low-income defendants. Lawyers’ ability, training and experience would have to match the nature and complexity of the case assigned, for example.

Many counties issue low-bid, flat-fee contracts in which appointed attorneys accept cases for a predetermined fee, a recipe for substandard representation. How many attorneys will put in 100 hours on a case when they’re getting paid for 30?

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