Constitutional protections should not be guaranteed to only those who can financially afford them. And yet there is an ongoing crisis in Michigan's indigent defense system for those too poor to afford fair and just legal representation.
Duncan v. State of Michigan was filed by the ACLU of Michigan in 2007 to challenge Michigan's inadequate indigent defense system. The plaintiffs in the case were essentially being plea bargained without their defense attorneys doing proper investigation or even discussing the relevant police reports with their clients. In other instances, the plaintiffs' attorneys were simply not prepared for trial.
Leaving 83 counties to handle indigent defense themselves with no state supervision, Michigan has been one of the worst states in the country. Enter the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC).
On July 1, 2013, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law the MIDC Act, 2013 PA 93, creating the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. This 15-member commission is now working to ensure the state's public defense system becomes fair, cost-effective and constitutional.
After successfully litigating Duncan for six years, the ACLU voluntarily dismissed the case once the state enacted the MIDC Act because the act established a framework for effecting necessary systemic change.
Detroit attorney Jonathan Sacks has been appointed the agency's founding executive director. Sacks comes to the commission from the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit where he was deputy director. Sacks' appointment ushers in a new era of hope for indigent defense in Michigan.
It is not acceptable for wealth to buy constitutional protection. Instead the government must provide the rights afforded by the Constitution to all citizens regardless of income.
The ACLU of Michigan spoke with MIDC executive director Sacks to discuss the mission of the MIDC. "For decades, poor people accused of crimes in Michigan have not received the same representation as folks who can pay for lawyers," said Sacks. "For the first time, a process is in place to fix that."
Before the MIDC, Michigan's indigent delivery system was marred by a total lack of statewide conformity, each county choosing how to provide representation with different standards and often producing horrible results.
The MIDC act provides "minimum standards" for local delivery of indigent criminal defense services throughout the state. The first four standards will hopefully be adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court by the middle of next year. These standards speak to required adequate training for lawyers, confidential client visits, access to investigators and experts for the defense, and the providing of counsel at critical stages, including the first appearance.
Sacks hopes by May of next year the standards will be fully adopted and Michigan's indigent system will start to receive "real change."
"There is a large segment where investigations weren't done and experts weren't used," said Sacks about the issues of innocent defendants and wrongful convictions in Michigan. "It is an extraordinary opportunity to be here on the ground level as reform really takes shape in Michigan."
Indigent defendants often plead guilty even if innocent without really understanding their legal rights or the legal system. Lack of proper attorney preparation also leads to botched trials.
This is why it is crucial that indigent defendants are given adequate representation in criminal cases where their life and liberty are in jeopardy. And now the MIDC makes this a hopeful proposition.