Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Michigan's Terrible Public Defender System

I knew it was bad, I just didn't know it was this bad. But I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Michigan's economy is in the toilet. The state budget is hundreds of millions in the red every year, even after cuts and deals. There's no money and even if there was, there's not much will to spend it on "criminal scumbags."

Still, it is a disgrace. Criminal defendants have the constitutional right to competent counsel. The reality is that "competent" has come to be interpreted by the courts as "barely qualified" and doesn't preclude huge blunders on the part of counsel. I think this is a combination of a lack of political will to pay for competent representation combined with a desire to keep the dockets moving (and they'd only be slowed down by competent counsel and having actual trials instead of hastily negotiated plea deals).

As far as I'm concerned, one does not get competent counsel without paying for it, so the fact that public defenders are generally paid probably 20% or less ($25 an hour being typical) what they would be paid if they were hired by a paying defedant ($150-400 an hour, depending on experience - and that is cheap compared to other states) means that it is impossible to truly give competent counsel in our system to indigent defendants consistently.

On top of that there is also often little to no money for paying for things like an investigator or experts - as compared to the prosecution which has the entire resources of the state backing them up, with labs, professional scientists, and thousands of police officers who act as investigators.

A fair system would have an equal number of resources available to the prosecutor and defendant, including investigators and scientists. As it is, while people seem to treat the whole CSI thing by the state as "neutral" the reality is that they really work for the prosecution and the police and some have been known to tilt results in favor of conviction. (There's a particularly bad example of this in Mississippi). A fair system would have an equal number of prosecutors and public defenders both salaried on an equal pay scale with equal benefits.

Of course, I have no illusions about this happening in Michigan anytime soon. Though there is a conference about this tomorrow (which I, alas, probably cannot attend). Still, that won't stop me from tilting at windmills over this. One can always have hope (and push where one can).

** I should note that Michigan doesn't actually have a Public Defender system at all (which is really the problem) - each county does something different, and I am not sure if any county actually has salaried public defenders. I know my county just does appointed attorneys, who are then paid a pittance.

No comments: