The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan applauds the Michigan Legislature today for passing necessary legislation to correct the state’s broken system for providing attorneys to poor people accused of crimes.

Today, Michigan takes another step forward in addressing an issue that has denied justice to far too many poor people in our state,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “The legislation not only acknowledges that we have a serious constitutional problem, but puts standards in place to ensure that our criminal justice system works for all, regardless of economic status.”

Today, the Michigan Legislature passed SB 301 and HB 4529, introduced in the Michigan Senate and House by Sen. Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale) and Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills), respectively. These bills establish a permanent commission to create and enforce statewide indigent defense standards and requirements.

Under Michigan’s current indigent defense system, the state provides no administrative oversight or funding for public defense at the trial level, resulting in inconsistency in the quality of aid provided between counties across the state. This system results in cases where poor defendants are afforded shockingly minimal legal representation, some of whom end up wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. These wrongful convictions cost the state millions of dollars.

The bills passed today set minimum standards for indigent defense statewide, including:

  • immediate counsel assignments after indigency is determined;
  • sufficient time and space for clients to meet with their attorneys;
  • a controlled workload for the defense counsel that is free of economic disincentives or incentives that impair the ability to provide effective representation;
  • the matching of the defense counsel’s ability, training, and experience with the complexity of the assigned case;
  • and ensuring that defendants have continuity of counsel.

The bills also provide counties the opportunity to apply for grants if they do not currently have enough money to adhere to the new standards.

Since the 1980s, a string of reports have called on Michigan to change the way it provides lawyers for the poor. In 2008, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Michigan’s system had reached a “constitutional crisis.”

Governor Snyder had made reforming our state’s system for providing lawyers to poor people in criminal cases a priority for his administration and is expected to sign the bills into law, ensuring the constitutional standard of qualified and consistent legal counsel throughout the state.

For years, the ACLU of Michigan and its coalition partners have worked in the courts and the legislature to fix Michigan’s broken system. In 2007, the ACLU of Michigan and national ACLU filed a class action against the state on behalf of all indigent criminal defendants in Berrien, Muskegon, and Genesee Counties.

The lawsuit was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court and called on the court to declare the three counties’ public defense systems unconstitutional and compel the state to assure representation consistent with national standards and constitutional norms.

Read more about Duncan v. Granholm