After a series of lawsuits and research reports documented the failure of Michigan’s trial level public defense system, Governor Rick Snyder established an Advisory Commission on Indigent Defense in 2011 to investigate and make recommendations for improvements to the provision of legal representation for indigent criminal defendants. The Advisory Commission concluded that Michigan’s counties offer an “uncoordinated, 83-county patchwork quilt” of public defense systems that fail to provide the type of quality legal representation mandated by the Supreme Court in Gideon v Wainwright.[1] The Commission further found that local courts are not held accountable by data collection or any statewide standards ensuring constitutionally adequate defense counsel. These recommendations served as the basis for legislation and resulted in the passage of Public Act 93 of 2013, which created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC). 

The MIDC is responsible for improving representation for poor people accused of crimes through the proposal, implementation, and monitoring of compliance with minimum standards by local court systems. The first set of proposed standards is awaiting approval by the Michigan Supreme Court and addresses the education and training of attorneys, the timing and location of the initial client interview, the utilization of experts and investigators, and the provision of counsel at first appearance and other critical stages in front of a judge. The MIDC selected these initial standards because they are either required by the MIDC statute or supported by United States Supreme Court precedent.

One of the most glaring findings in both the Advisory Commission’s final report and a 2008 research report conducted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA)[2] was the lack of consistent data collection within indigent defense systems in Michigan. As a result, the MIDC has very little reliable information on current indigent defense practices. While the Advisory Commission’s report provides a helpful overview of practices and the NLADA report offers detailed case studies of ten different counties, comprehensive data on court-by-court practices currently do not exist.

In response, the MIDC’s first research task was to survey all circuit and district courts in the state to gather basic information on the representation of indigent adult criminal defendants in their systems. Survey questions addressed the extent to which local public defense systems currently engage in evidence-based practices that have been identified nationally as characterizing representation that is high-quality and effective. The survey also intended to shed light on process. Since data on indigent defense representation have never been comprehensively and consistently collected in Michigan, data collection provided critical insight to the MIDC into how to most effectively connect with stakeholders to gather accurate information. The results will be used by the MIDC to inform the development of statewide minimum standards and to guide the implementation of standards in each local jurisdiction.

The MIDC hopes to share the survey results with policymakers and practitioners in Michigan and nationally. The report is designed to be statistically informative but also accessible to a wide range of audiences. To keep readers engaged, we made the report as visually appealing as possible by using report and chart templates from Microsoft Office. As a follow-up to this project, the MIDC is currently surveying criminal defense attorneys across the state to learn about their perspectives on the current operation and challenges of indigent defense.

You can read the report HERE

[1] Michigan Advisory Commission on Indigent Defense (2012). “Report of the Michigan Advisory Commission on Indigent Defense;” Gideon v Wainwright, 372 US 335; 83 S Ct 792; 9 L Ed 2d 799 (1963).
[2] A Race to the Bottom: Speed & Savings Over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis, National Legal Aid & Defender Association (2008).