My home state of Michigan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, but NPR has a hopeful story about some movement toward fixing the state’s appallingly bad indigent defense system. How bad is it? The public defenders in Detroit handle an average of 2400 cases a year.
In many Michigan counties, judges choose from rosters of defense lawyers who make a flat rate for each case they handle. In others, contracts are awarded to small groups of lawyers who offer the lowest bid.
That’s no kind of justice, says Mike Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union. His office in midtown Detroit is filled with photos of the Statue of Liberty.
“For a while I had a special attraction to the Statue of Liberty,” Steinberg says. Steinberg says he still believes in those ideals. So he sued Michigan, arguing the way it provides lawyers for the poor amounts to assembly line justice.
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.
I’ve mentioned McMillin before. On most issues, he’s a solid religious righter — all about God, guns and gays. But on transparency issues and on indigent defense, he’s genuinely on the right side. The real sticking point is going to be financial. At a time of flagging revenue, where’s the money going to come from to fix the problem? I fear it will come from the wrong places.