Pricey conundrum: Tips on how to defend Michigan’s poor

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Studies show Michigan is among the worst states in the country at protecting the constitutional rights of poor criminal defendants. New statewide standards are expected to change that, but the cost of the fix could be problematic.

Under initial proposals, bringing indigent defense up to new minimum standards would cost an additional $87 million, which counties and courts expect to come from the state coffers. That total is sure to shrink as the plans are reworked and reviewed, but lawmakers will likely be asked to come up with tens of millions of dollars to better defend the poor in court.

“Everybody has the constitutional right to have a lawyer when they are accused of a crime, even if they can’t afford it,” said Michael Puerner of Ada, the chairman of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. “It’s hard to debate that people charged with a crime are entitled to things like meeting their lawyer early in that process, and having a confidential place to gather, and to make sure that that lawyer is properly trained to represent them.”

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission was created by lawmakers in 2013 after a series of studies showed state systems were not providing a constitutional defense for poor suspects. The commission has created eight minimum standards lawyers and defense systems will be required to meet.

While the final four are still being reviewed, the first four standards were approved by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2016 and include:

  • Minimum education and training, including continuing education for lawyers assigned to represent the poor.
  • Lawyers must interview a jailed client within 72 hours of being appointed, and as soon as possible if the client is not in jail. Courts and jails must provide a confidential meeting space for lawyers and their clients.
  • Lawyers must use experts and investigators when appropriate.
  • Defendants have the right to counsel clients at all critical stages of the case, including during their initial court appearance and arraignment.


A total of 132 Michigan courts and counties submitted plans on how they will meet these first standards. The commission reviewed all of the plans and voted on each.

The panel rejected 31 of the proposals, many of which did not adequately explain how to meet one or more of the standards. Eight plans, including the one submitted by Montcalm County, requested funds for the local prosecutor’s…

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