Failing the indigent


The U.S. Constitution grants every person accused of a crime the right to effective defense. But that right is violated every day in courts around the country, including those in Ohio and Michigan.

A lack of state standards for indigent defense and ridiculously low pay for court-appointed attorneys have made Michigan a McJustice state. Michigan lawmakers can take a step toward fixing this outrageous system now.

Read more Blade editorials

A bill approved by the state House Judiciary Committee would establish a Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. That panel would oversee local systems and establish minimal standards for caseloads, training, and funding.

Michigan ranks near the bottom in spending per person on indigent defense among the 50 states — lower than Alabama. Court-appointed attorneys routinely lack the time, investigators, training, experts, and resources to mount an effective defense.

Many criminal defendants never even speak to a lawyer. Counties dispense discount justice with low-bid contracts or inadequate fixed fees for exams, pleas, motions, and other legal tasks.

Ineffective legal assistance for poor defendants is a national problem. With a hodgepodge of poorly funded county systems, Michigan may be one of the few states whose public defender system is worse than Ohio’s. Even so, state and local officials here have a lot of work to do to meet constitutional standards.

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, under the nine-member Ohio Public Defender Commission, provides some uniform standards, oversight, and funding. But the state’s mishmash of 88 local systems includes “high variations in cost, quality, and efficiency,” says Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young.

Counties may contract with the state Public Defender’s Office, run their own office, use appointed counsel, hire nonprofit groups, or use a combination of systems to represent poor defendants. The state reimburses local indigent defense systems for 35 percent of their costs, regardless of efficiency. Overall funding is woefully inadequate.

Moreover, the Ohio Public Defender has little ability to enforce, or even monitor, standards. It has practically no oversight over appointed counsel, a practice rife with patronage.

To meet constitutional standards statewide, increase efficiency, and cut waste and duplication, Ohio must move toward a uniform, central system with state-run local Public Defender’s Offices.

When poor defendants get lousy legal counsel, innocent people are convicted and guilty ones remain free. Taxpayers pick up the tab for wrongful conviction lawsuits, and for unnecessary incarceration costs.

In Michigan, Kenneth Wyniemko served nine years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Eddie Joe Lloyd, who was similarly exonerated, served 17 years for a murder and rape he didn’t commit.

Hundreds of other wrongful convictions will never get reversed, or even acknowledged, without DNA evidence. With appellate courts practically rubber-stamping criminal convictions, it’s even more important to assure just verdicts at the trial level.

Access to justice should not depend on which state — or county — defendants live in. Michigan and Ohio must provide adequate, constitutional, and cost-effective public defense for the poor.