Public Defense Reform This Month

In October of last year, Governor Snyder created an Indigent Defense Advisory Commission that was charged with examining the indigent defense system in Michigan and making recommendations to improve the delivery of indigent defense to the Legislature and the Governor by July of this year.

 The Commission has met monthly since October, taking public testimony from various stakeholders within Michigan and from individuals responsible for indigent defense in other states.

The Governor's Indigent Defense Advisory Commission met on Friday June 22 and approved its final report. That report will be presented to the Governor and legislature.  You can read  it on our website (

In its report, the Commission found:

• According to the Constitution, it is the State of Michigan’s responsibility to ensure adequate defense representation for its residents who are unable to afford an attorney;
• Michigan has delegated this constitutional responsibility to the counties and this county-based system has resulted in an “uncoordinated, 83-county patchwork quilt” of public defense systems;
• There are no statewide standards to either define or ensure constitutionally adequate defense counsel for residents unable to afford an attorney;
• The “availability, quality and funding resources of county-provided indigent defense services at the trial level varies greatly across Michigan”; and,
• As a result of the many different local systems, interpretations of what is constitutionally required and inconsistent funding, Michigan’s current public defense system too often makes errors and exposes Michigan taxpayers to millions of dollars in unnecessary expense and wasteful spending.

In response, the Commission recommended to the Governor and the Legislature that they adopt legislation to:

• Create a permanent commission on indigent defense with the responsibility to establish and enforce minimum statewide standards to meet Michigan’s constitutional duty to provide effective assistance of counsel to residents unable to afford an attorney;
• Base those standards on the American Bar Association’s widely-accepted “10 Principles for an Effective Public Defense”;
• Recognize the importance of judicial independence.  Lawyers should not face discipline or be subject to repercussions for complying with professional and ethical responsibilities; and,
• Charge the commission with establishing methods of measuring performance in providing public defense services, examining use and need of public resources and collecting needed data to ensure transparent and effective use of tax dollars.

It is so exciting to see movement on this important issue.  It never would have happened without the dedicated support from the many people who have worked so hard and so long to bring this issue to the attention of Michigan's lawmakers.

You may be wondering what happens next.  At Friday’s meeting, Representative Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) indicated that he is working on legislation that will reflect the Commission's report.  The Campaign will continue to monitor this legislation and will update our website with information as we have it.  The Campaign for Justice needs your support to ensure that the momentum continues during the next few months as legislation moves through the House and Senate and to Governor Snyder for his signature.  We will continue to send email updates and to post information on the website, but please don't hesitate to contact the Campaign if we can be of assistance.

In other Campaign news, I am leaving the Campaign for Justice to work at the State Bar of Michigan as its Director of Governmental Relations.  I am excited about this opportunity in part because it will allow me to continue to work on improving Michigan’s indigent defense system. Marcela Westrate, who is the current Deputy Director, will be the Interim Executive Director.  Marcela has a great deal of legislative experience and I know that the Campaign will be in good hands.  I am looking forward to continuing to work with Marcela and the Campaign on reforming Michigan’s indigent defense system.

by Peter Cunningham, Executive Director
Campaign for Justice