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Demand Michigan Provide Effective Legal Defense for the Poor

This petition had 311 supporters

What happens when an indigent defendant isn't afforded effective counsel? Perhaps an unwise plea agreement, a disproportionate sentence, or even a potential wrongful conviction. While the U.S. Constitution guarantees each citizen the right to effective counsel in a criminal case, not all defendants are getting that benefit. While this is true across the country, Michigan is largely recognized as having one of the most troublesome public defense systems of all. 

Eighty percent of criminal defendants in Michigan are represented by a court appointed attorney. You would think with this kind of number, the state would have provided oversight--a body to regulate the public defense system or at least funding for those attorneys and their work. Well, you would be wrong. In Michigan, each county is responsible for its own system of court appointed defense attorneys. This means eighty percent of defendants are rolling the dice when they go to court, hoping the system has provided an attorney that is sufficiently compensated, experienced, and not stretched too thin by an overload of cases. 

A study by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in 2008 led to the release of the Michigan Public Defense System Report Card. The state received one lone C among many D's and F's, a complete failure when measured against the Eleven Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System as adopted by the Michigan State Bar's Representative Assembly. There's no question the system is failing. It's failing the defendants and the attorneys forced to work in such an unorganized and unstructured mess. While the current system is easier on the budget, the Constitutional right to effective counsel far outweighs budgetary interests.

A bill was filed last December to overhaul the system and get it in line with national standards. Unfortunately  House Bill 5676 didn't make it out of committee and died in a lame duck session. It was known as the Michigan Public Defense Act and would have created a state-funded commission and Office of Public Defense. It also would have removed the power from the counties and grant oversight to the state, where it should be. While reform didn't happen last year, local and national activists are hoping similar legislation will be proposed and passed this year. Show your support for criminal defense reform in Michigan by contacting lawmakers there with the petition below. 

Photo Credit: Brooke Novak

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