Local governments would have to fund indigent defense at the average level spent in the three years before the creation of the commission. The state would cover new costs for counties to improve their public defense systems. Michigan is among just seven states to provide no state funding for trial-level public defense services, according to the Michigan Campaign for Justice, a group supporting the legislation.
The lead sponsors are Republicans, including one of the most conservative in the Capitol.
“We have people who are sent to jail who are innocent or sentenced to longer terms because they were not represented properly. Keep in mind that we also pay $30,000-plus every year for each innocent person to be in prison,” said Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills.
Carroll said many people think of the push for better indigent defense as a liberal cause, but in other states making changes, it was often Republicans leading the effort.
“This is a tyranny issue. ... You can’t throw me in jail without due process. I think that’s where we see traditional Republicans really latching on to this. We don’t want big government taking people’s liberty unfairly,” he said.
McMillin’s bill won approval from the GOP-led House last year only to die in the Senate. Since then, changes have been made to address counties’ concerns about having to pay more for indigent defense, to shield governments from lawsuits for failing to comply with state standards and to prohibit convictions from being overturned if the new rules are violated.
Ben Bodkin, legislative affairs director for the Michigan Association of Counties, said the group’s biggest remaining concern with the legislation is it would let the state take over a county’s public defense system if a county runs afoul of the new commission and require that county to continue paying its costs along with part of the state’s bill. Counties want a third party — such as the state appeals court — to resolve disputes between the state and counties instead of a mediator because they worry the state could have too much power.