Changes in Michigan's Indigent Defense System Coming

Although Michigan’s indigent defense system has long been criticized, including in this 2008 report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, NPR reports on changes that may be ahead:

Court-appointed lawyers in Michigan, Steinberg says, “have to encourage their clients to plead guilty and keep the docket moving in order to generate the volume that they can make a living. So the incentive is to get your client to plead guilty as quickly as possible doing the least amount of work as possible.”

Steinberg and the ACLU have an unlikely ally: state Rep. Tom McMillin. The son of a retired General Motors executive, he’s a Republican and a former leader of the Christian Coalition in Michigan.

“Conservatives are really talking about, what is the proper role of government? Has it expanded too much?” McMillin says. “And I think many of us feel this is one of the proper roles — providing as much equal justice as possible.”

That issue captured the attention of Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, too. Last year, the governor named McMillin to a commission to study how to improve the patchwork system of justice for the poor. The group is planning to present its recommendations to the governor this month.

Jeff Sauter is eager to read them. Sauter testified before the commission last winter, on behalf of a group of prosecutors in Michigan. After 21 years as the elected prosecutor in Eaton County, near Lansing, Sauter has seen a lot.

“I’ve seen instances actually, both appointed and retained attorneys, where the defendant I don’t think is getting good representation,” he says.

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