Public Defense

Almost forty years ago, the Supreme Court declared that the Constiution's "noble ideal" of equal justice was not met as long as poor people accused of crimes had no lawyer to defend them. Legal counsel, the Court wrote, is a "fundamental right essential to a fair trial." That landmark ruling, Gideon V. Wainright, required state and local governments to provide legal representation free of charge to criminal defendants unable to afford their own. In 1967, re Gault extended the right to counsel to minors in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

A generation later, Gideon's and Gault's promise of equal justice is far from realized. In the United States, public defense too often means a lawyer who is overwhelmed, unqualified, or politically compromised. Although fully 85 percent of all those arrested in the U.S. cannot afford an attorney and must rely on the government to provide one; most jurisdictions devote only a small fraction of their criminal justice budgets to public defense. Accused people sometimes wait three months or more in jail before speaking to a lawyer. Low fees and high case loads discourage attorneys from spending the time necessary to investigate the guilt or social history of the accused. Juveniles and those facing serious charges are routinely represented by counsel with no specialized training or experience. Finally, the process of judges appointing defense counsel has led to the perception (justified or not) that this type of patronage can be, and is, corruption of the system.

In November 2000, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency was approached by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants to determine if the Council was interested in assisting them with a Gideon Initiative in Michigan. The purpose of the ABA Gideon Initiative is to be a catalyst in fostering systemic improvements in the area of public defense.

The staff and Board of the Council were intrigued by the possibility of assisting in the development of a plan to strengthen public defense services, particularly if the role of the defense system was also strengthened in the areas of client-specific planning, mediation, and balanced and restorative justice. The Council's mission is to prevent and reduce criminal behavior, so in addition to strengthening defense services, a process was developed that included exploring the possiblity of the defense system playing a role in reducing recidivism for offenders.

All of the states participating in the Gideon Initiative looked at funding, standards, and accountability of defense services. The project developed by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency differed fro the other state initiatives in three ways: Defense services for juvenile offenders was included; A strong emphasis was placed on support services and the role of the defense system in reducing recidivism; and The MCCD initiative was driven by a task force which included representatives of non-lawyer groups whose constituencies are dramatically affected by the justice system.


The Michigan Public Defense Task Force

In June 2001, the Michigan Council on Crime and Deliquency convened a group of interested people from around the state to share their concerns about Michigan's Public Defense System. At that meeting a statewide citizen's group (the Michigan Public Defense Task Force) was established to develop a model for improving Michigan's defense services for citizens who cannot afford counsel. The 50-member Task Force is geographically representative of the state and includes service providers, state an local elected officials, professors, foundation staff, attorney and citizens. The common thread among Task Force members is a commitment to assuring fair and effective justice and the recognition that Michigan's public defense system must be strengthened.

The Task Force began by gathering information. This process included examining best practices from around the country, as well as in Michigan Circuit Court jurisdictions. The Task Force also surveyed current Michigan criminal defense attorneys and heard from local and national experts. The first action of the Task Force was to adopt the following vision statement:

"Michigan will have a comprehensive, fair, effective, efficient, and independent system for providing public defense services to juveniles and adults who cannot afford an attorney."

From 2001 to 2007 the Task Force continued to educate the public and the legislature on the need for reform. In 2007, this reform effort gained the attention of Atlantic Philanthropies a foundation interested in promoting public defense system reform. Thanks to funding by Atlantic, the work of the Task Force is now being spearheaded by the Campaign for Justice. The Campaign is a 501(c)(4) organization working for legislative reform to establish a constitutionally sound system of public defense in Michigan.