The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan welcomes Governor Rick Snyder’s executive order establishing a commission to improve Michigan’s system for providing defense to poor people in criminal cases.

“Today’s executive order takes a step forward in addressing a serious constitutional problem involving the state’s system for providing attorneys to poor people accused of crimes,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “We look forward to working with the governor and the commission to ensure that our criminal justice system works for all Michiganders regardless of their economic status.”

According to the Governor’s executive order, the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission is charged with recommending improvements that will ensure qualified and consistent legal counsel is available for poor people accused of crimes throughout the state. Commission recommendations are due to the governor and legislature by July 15, 2012.

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 current public defense systems of the three counties unconstitutional and compel the state to assure representation consistent with national standards and constitutional norms. The case, Duncan v. Granholm, is pending in Ingham Circuit Court.

“For too long, Michigan has ignored the high cost of wrongful convictions,” said William Fleener, Cooley Innocence Project staff attorney. “Such convictions not only cost the state millions of dollars, but they also cost lives – the innocent men and women who are imprisoned, the families who suffer and the public that believes a crime has been solved.”

Earlier this year, the ACLU and Michigan Campaign for Justice released “Faces of Failing Public Defense Systems: Portraits of Michigan’s Constitutional Crisis,” a report documenting Michigan’s failure to ensure that public defense attorneys have the tools they need to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation and the devastating impact of this failure on the lives of 13 public defense clients. The report offers researched accounts of people accused of crimes across Michigan – people who were unable to afford an attorney, inadequately represented in court, imprisoned and later exonerated or are awaiting exoneration.