Spotlight On: Jonathan Sacks

Please tell us about your background, and about your current position.

During my first year of law school, I volunteered at the Harlem Neighborhood Defender Service, and I realized that I wanted to become a lawyer who could help counsel poor people in an impossible, unfair, and dehumanizing criminal justice system.  When I graduated, I worked at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a model office, as a trial attorney.   I represented adults and juveniles on all manner of misdemeanor and felony charges.  My wife and I moved to Michigan in 2004, and I was lucky enough to continue public defender work with another model office, the State Appellate Defender Office.  At SADO, I worked as a line attorney for three years, and I served as Deputy Director for eight years, always with my own caseload.

SADO is a remarkable office of inspiring attorneys who provide the best possible representation for their often desperate clients, and I am very proud to have been part of such a special place.  Gradually though, I realized that SADO had the institutional culture and resources to continue to succeed, and I wanted to devote myself to fixing a broken system rather than leading a model one.  When the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission started its search for a first executive director, I leaped at the opportunity.

What prompted the creation of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission?

A number of different dynamics contributed to statewide system reform in Michigan.  In 2007, the ACLU and coalition partners filed Duncan v. Granholm, a class action lawsuit to respond to Michigan’s indigent defense crisis.  In 2008, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association evaluated ten representative Michigan counties.  Their report, A Race to the Bottom – Speed and Savings over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis, concluded that none of the ten counties were constitutionally adequate and Michigan ranked 44th out of all 50 states in per capita indigent defense spending.

In October 2011, Governor Snyder created the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission to investigate problems and recommend reforms. The Commission found that Michigan offered an uncoordinated “patchwork quilt” of an indigent defense system, that there was no data or transparency to define the system, and that no statewide standards existed for indigent defense.

The Advisory Commission recommended a permanent commission to collect data, propose minimum standards, and fund compliance.  The MIDC was created by PA 93 of 2013, signed into law by Governor Snyder in July of 2013.

Please tell us about some of the things the MIDC has accomplished.

I started as the first Executive Director of the MIDC in February, 2015, and it has been an eventful first two years:

• For the first time in Michigan, proposed minimum standards for indigent defense were conditionally approved by the Michigan Supreme Court.  These standards tackle attorney training and education, the initial client interview, experts and investigators, and counsel at first appearance and other critical stages. The Court required amendments to the MIDC Act in response to separation of powers and authority concerns.  These changes passed overwhelmingly in the legislature, and the standards are now under final review by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). 
• The MIDC staff has grown from two people, in February 2015, to twelve, with plans to increase to fifteen by the end of the fiscal year.  To help plan compliance with minimum standards, the MIDC now has six regional managers working with counties and courts.
• The MIDC has published the first ever comprehensive survey of trial level indigent defense systems.
• The MIDC has published a guide to delivery system reform as a resource for local systems that choose to comply with minimum standards through larger scale system reform such as the creation of public defender offices or independently managed assigned counsel systems.
• The MIDC has published “white papers” for guidance on compliance with the first set of minimum standards and a fee resource booklet for attorneys, administrators, and courts to approach attorney fee issues.
• The MIDC has worked with counties and court systems that have moved ahead of required compliance with minimum standards to start reform.  Lenawee County and Berrien County started public defender offices, and Huron County started a program for counsel to be present at a defendant’s first appearance in court.
• The Department of Justice awarded a grant to the MIDC to encourage best practices in indigent defense through the assistance of a social worker in a public defender system in Kent County and an assigned counsel system in Genesee County.

 The MIDC has been fortunate to have both an extraordinary staff and a dedicated Commission to enable this success.

What may we expect to see in coming months?

When LARA formally approves the minimum standards, each county and municipality must submit a plan to comply with the standards.  Over the months, the MIDC is hopeful that (1) LARA will approve standards; (2) local systems will submit plans to comply with the standards; and (3) the State of Michigan will fund the compliance.  The MIDC Act sets out an ambitious process and timeline, and 2017 should be the year that the reform process really begins.

The MIDC has also prepared a second set of minimum standards, to be proposed later this year.  The next set of standards focuses on independent systems, attorney workload, attorney compensation, and attorney qualifications.

On the research and data end, the MIDC will release a survey of over 500 attorneys practicing indigent defense and an examination of and recommendations for attorney compensation structures.

Do you have any specific advice for attorneys new to the practice of criminal law?

I have had two guiding principles.  First, you can never be too prepared.  Whether it is an interview, a negotiation, a motion, trial, or argument, you should always be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  Second, always listen to your clients.  It is easy to approach an interview certain as to how a client’s situation should resolve.  Lawyers should resist this temptation – with the foundation of a proper relationship, my clients have continually enabled me to counsel them for the best possible results.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor