Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 20, 2012

Another View: Step toward greater justice

By the Detroit Free Press
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---- — The Michigan House of Representatives kicked off its lame-duck session this month on positive note — a bipartisan vote in favor of HB5804, which would bring consistency and somewhat greater quality to the state's shoddy patchwork of approaches to handling indigent criminal defense.

Gov. Rick Snyder is waiting for it to land on his desk, so he can sign it.

The stakes for Michigan are significant, financially and morally.

Michigan will save money on incarcerations and lawsuits if it provides better representation for criminal defendants at trial.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees every defendant "assistance of counsel," which has been interpreted by courts to mean something more than a person with a law degree sitting next to you in court.

Right now, Michigan leaves it up to individual counties to decide how to fulfill that right for those who cannot afford lawyers of their own. Some counties provide competent representation; others scrimp, leaving poor defendants essentially to defend themselves.

So innocent people sometimes go to prison, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $30,000 a head. In some instances, those imprisoned unjustly have sued the state for inadequate representation and recovered hundreds of thousands more in damages.

The human toll is harder to quantify, but certainly exceeds the financial cost of false incarceration.

Michigan becomes more of a crime-and-punishment backwater when it denies effective counsel to indigent defendants — which not only hurts the defendants, but reflects poorly on the moral sensibilities of everyone else.

Snyder ordered a commission to study the issue and come up with recommendations for change. HB5804 is the result; it would establish a permanent commission to assess how well each county provides for indigent defense now, and identify areas in which they fall short of the American Bar Association's national standards.

Then the Legislature and individual counties would work together to plug the holes and fill the gaps.

Who'll pay?

The bill says counties will pick up the difference between what they spend now and the state average; the state would pay anything beyond that to meet the standards that the commission lays out.

There's also an exception in the law for counties that are meeting the standards without spending the state average; they won't be required to pay more.

But justice is the key word there. Michigan needs to do better at ensuring it gets done in the courtroom — and that means providing adequate defense for everyone.

-- Detroit Free Press