Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 8, 2013

Editorial: State obliged to provide criminal defense for indigent

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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?

The new plan would control lawyers’ workloads and says financial incentives or disincentives “shall be avoided.”

The Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights says “no person ... (shall) be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which has since been understood to include legal representation in criminal cases. The Michigan Constitution guarantees representation.

One measure of a society is how it looks after those least able to look after themselves. Right now, Michigan is failing its obligation to provide legal representation to the indigent in criminal cases.