New standards coming for courts

ESCANABA — The statewide procedure which appoints an attorney to defendants who cannot afford representation has recently developed standards regarding this constitutional right, which many defendants in Delta County rely on to obtain legal counsel.

“I think statewide, they’re good standards that will ensure people who cannot afford attorneys, will be represented more effectively,” commented Delta County District Court Judge Steve Parks. “It’s everyone’s right to have effective legal representation.”

In June 2015, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) — which was created to establish and enforce uniform indigent defense standards throughout the state — proposed four minimum standards.

The standards include providing court-appointed lawyers with funding for continuing education and experts to investigate their clients’ charges. The standards also step up the timeline when a defendant can meet with an attorney, including legal counsel being available starting with a defendant’s arraignment, which is the first court appearance when charges are authorized.

After the MIDC proposed the standards in 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the minimum requirements, which were later approved by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs on May 22, 2017, with public comment hearings held at each stage.

All the courts in the state were required to submit their individual plans for compliance of the four standards, as well as a local cost analysis by Nov. 20, 2017.

Following review of these reports, the MICD requested many courts to adjust their plans using a more realistic funding approach, said Delta County District Court Administrator Emily DeSalvo.

“We were notified… to resubmit our report,” she said, explaining, “We had reached for the stars so we expected to make adjustments.”

Parks said many of the compliance plans submitted from around the state likely exceeded funding limits and were returned to be revised.

Parks and DeSalvo, along with Delta County Administrator Ryan Bergman, are reworking the compliance plan and the cost analysis they originally compiled for district court and circuit court. Resubmissions are due in late February.

Though there is no date set when the standards will take effect or how the state will fund them, Parks said many courts in the state are already consistent with some of the new requirements while changes will also be necessary.

Delta County District Court’s compliance plan requests a pretrial officer be available to help guide defendants during their arraignment. Once charged, the court magistrate assigns each defendant a court-appointed attorney if the person cannot afford one.

The standards require court-appointed attorneys to undergo 12 hours of training or education each year, said Parks, noting this is a new requirement.

The standard to provide court-appointed attorneys with funding for investigators and expert witnesses is also unique, he said.

Both Parks and DeSalvo agreed the new standards are important to the administration of justice; the rules will allow the judicial process to move forward in a timely manner while making sure everyone’s rights are followed.

“It’s important the public understands it’s their constitutional right to have effective representation,” stressed Parks.

In the local district court, Parks said there are more defendants represented by court-appointed attorneys compared to the number of defendants who have hired a lawyer or decided to not have any legal counsel.

Three lawyers who serve as court-appointed attorneys in district court are Jessica Bray, Russ Hall and Jean-Paul Rudell. Four court-appointed attorneys in circuit court are John Bergman, Timothy Cain, Jayne Mackowiak, and Rudell.

According to Circuit Court Administrator Brenda LaCount, “A large majority of defendants qualify for court-appointed attorneys, I’d say, in more than 80 percent of our cases.”

In addition to looking at a defendant’s income, other factors considered are rent or house payments, monthly bills, debts, and dependents, said LaCount, also noting more than 80 percent of the defendants are not employed.

Though each court may appoint attorneys for indigent defendants, an attorney fee is usually assessed if someone is convicted. The cost is $300 in district court and $500 in circuit court. Monthly payments can be arranged to pay the fee. DeSalvo said community service is sometimes assigned to make up for district court fees.

While local courts and the state work together to put the approved standards into action, the MIDC has already drafted an additional set of standards for indigent criminal defense services.

Proposed standards address the program’s independence from the judiciary, defender workload limitations, qualification of attorneys accepting assignments in adult criminal cases, and economic disincentives and incentives for court-appointed attorneys.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,