Friday, Jul 01, 2016
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Improving justice

Michigan’s efforts to improve its system of legal defense for poor people should encourage Ohio to do the same

Ohio’s public defense system continues to violate — and mock — the constitutional right of poor people to an adequate and robust legal defense. Until now, however, state officials could find solace in knowing that Michigan’s indigent defense system was even worse.

That’s about to change. Reforms overwhelmingly approved this month by the Michigan House and Senate ought to encourage Ohio also to do better.

A lack of state standards for trial-level public defense services and absurdly low pay for court-appointed attorneys have made Michigan a McJustice state, where many poor criminal defendants are convicted without even speaking to a lawyer.

Michigan runs one of the nation’s worst public defense systems, ranking near the bottom in spending per person on such services among the states. Court-appointed attorneys routinely lack the time, investigators, training, experts, and other resources to mount the kind of effective defense the Constitution requires.

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Many Michigan counties cut costs with low-bid, flat-fee contracts that pay appointed attorneys set fees, which practically force lawyers to spend less time on a case than they should.

New legislation, which will go soon to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, would create badly needed state standards for counties. It would create a permanent Michigan Indigent Defense Commission to establish standards to ensure effective counsel to poor defendants, and would require certain levels of local funding.

The changes would come, appropriately, during the year that marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon vs. Wainwright. That ruling held that states are constitutionally required to provide a lawyer to people who are charged with a felony and unable to afford an attorney.

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender provides some uniform standards, oversight, and funding. But the state’s hodgepodge of 88 local systems has huge differences in cost, quality, and efficiency.

Making matters worse, the Ohio Public Defender has little ability to enforce, or even monitor, standards. It has practically no oversight of appointed counsel — a practice rife with patronage.

In Ohio too, funding for public defense is woefully inadequate. The state should move toward a better-funded, more uniform central system with state-run local public defender’s offices.

Ohio should also bolster a new Wrongful Conviction Project run by the Ohio Public Defender. It’s one of the few innocence initiatives nationwide that is devoted to non-DNA cases.

Improving legal services for poor defendants saves money. When they 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.

Low-income defendants in Michigan and Ohio deserve adequate, constitutional, cost-effective public defense. Michigan’s overdue efforts to improve its indigent defense services should inspire Ohio to do the same.

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