Spotlight On: Loren E. Khogali

Please tell us something about your background and how you became involved with criminal defense.

I’ve been interested in the criminal legal system and its intersection with race and poverty for as long as I can recall. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity, as a high school student and into college, to work with my aunt, whose practice focused on advocating for the civil rights of people who are incarcerated. That experience really sparked my interest in public defense. In law school, I focused my externships on public defense and civil rights and gained experience at the ACLU of Michigan, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the Federal Public Defender Office in Boston, and with attorney Howard Friedman, whose practice in Boston focused on civil rights litigation.

After law school, I clerked for a year with the state trial court in Massachusetts and tried to spend as much time working with judges handling the criminal docket. And then, in what felt like a real long shot, I applied for a research and writing attorney position at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit. Very fortunately for me, it worked out, and I spent the next 13 years there as a research attorney and then as a deputy public defender with some of the best, most dedicated attorneys I know.

In 2018, I was presented with the opportunity to help lead critical system-wide reform of state trial-level public defense in Michigan at the MIDC. I have been beyond thrilled at the evolution of Michigan’s public defense systems over the last three years. The first-time joint commitment of resources by the state and local governments has enabled the establishment of 120 local public defense systems statewide, training and support for new defender leadership across the State of Michigan and ensured that every person who faces charges in criminal court in Michigan is provided counsel at their initial appearance. There is a lot of work yet to be done, but the recognition and investment in public defense as a fundamental component of our criminal legal system and our overall public welfare is transformative.

For me, being a public defender is an honor. You are standing with people in court at some of their most difficult and scary moments and you are entrusted with receiving, communicating, and honoring their story and life experiences. It is a humbling profession.   

Until recently, you served as Executive Director with the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. Please tell us something about your role there, and please highlight some of the accomplishments of the Commission.

The Commission has achieved a lot over the last several years, making it a challenge to choose one or two accomplishments to highlight. Overall, the 120 public defense systems with access to resources to serve clients across Michigan is the manifestation of the Commission’s work and its most significant accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge though, that none of this would have happened without state and local partnerships, buy-in that this was an important step forward for Michigan, and public defense attorneys willing step up and commit to do the work.

The Commission’s commitment to the continued implementation of the minimum standards in the face of the pandemic and MIDC staff’s support of local public defense systems and attorneys navigating really harrowing circumstances to ensure that their clients were represented was an important moment for the Commission. I’m extremely proud of the role the Commission and its staff played in ensuring that people had access to counsel during those beginning months of the pandemic when the whole legal system was in chaos.

There are so many things I could highlight, but the best place to see the Commission’s work and accomplishments over the years are the annual reports, which are available on the MIDC website. A terrific four-minute video also captures the Commission’s work and support of public defense systems during 2020.

Right now, the Commission is reviewing and approving plans for compliance with MIDC minimum standards and funding for fiscal year 2022. Those plans incorporate MIDC’s minimum standard 5, establishing public defense systems as independent from the judiciary, which was approved last year. Importantly, Standard 5 moves approval and payment of appointed attorneys and experts and investigators from the court to the public defense system. 

The Director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has indicated her intention to provide final approval in October to the Commission’s standard on determining indigency and contribution, which will be included as part of fiscal year 2023 compliance plans.

What are some things that could further improve our criminal justice system?

Really big picture, I’d like to see us shift orientation in the criminal legal system from being focused on punishment and incarceration as the primary solution, to looking first to solutions that are community-driven and provide resources that improve the overall welfare of people living in our communities. People who are making the laws and policy decisions still tend to defer to law enforcement and prosecutors as the primary lens through which criminal legal system reform is examined. We’ve taken some important steps in creating a more just system, but there is a long way to go. It’s going to require investment in ensuring that community-based voices and the voices of those people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system are being given power in the making those policy and process decisions that will lead to transformational change of the criminal legal system. That shift will be critical to creating a system that is primarily restorative and remedial – a system that really benefits the public welfare and enhances safety.

I also want to mention data collection and accessibility, which is key to making better and informed decisions about our criminal legal system. The ability to access and analyze comprehensive and neutral criminal legal system data will help move forward smart policy decisions as well as give law enforcement, judges, public defenders, and prosecutors the tools to make better decisions on an individual basis and to monitor and address the inequities that are pervasive in the criminal legal system.

Are there recurring or persistent issues that you see?

Race-based inequity from arrest to charges to pleas and sentences. The work that is being done to address the racial inequities inherent in the criminal justice system in Michigan is heartening. The recommendations by the Jail and Pretrial Task Force and adopted by the Legislature, the organizational advocacy on bail reform, the Michigan Supreme Court’s Judicial Council, and the report from Citizens for Racial Equity out of Washtenaw County are all important steps to end the bias that is pervasive in our criminal legal system. Public defenders have an important role to play in this area as well by pushing back and litigating policies practices and decisions that are not equitable and cause harm. SADO, CDAM, and NAPD have all offered terrific trainings on litigating issues of race that I recommend folks check out.

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

If you plan to practice and you have the opportunity, do a judicial clerkship. Clerking, whether it be state or federal, trial or appellate, provides experience and insight that will serve you well in your practice. Clerking helps you understand the processes in the court system and gives insight into the way the court works when you peel back the curtain. For criminal defense attorneys, I think it a helpful tool in understanding how you can best advocate to the court on your clients’ behalf.

Build yourself a network of support and resources that will help you serve your clients to the best of your ability. Colleagues and mentors are critically important, especially in criminal defense work, where your clients’ stakes are so very high. They give you space to brainstorm, challenge your ideas, celebrate with you, and support you in weathering the losses, which weigh heavily. I know that making those phone calls to your colleagues and potential mentors can carry some anxiety for some folks (I’m someone to whom networking causes a lot of angst!), but it’s worth it. I’ll put on my mom hat for a second and ask the question my mom still asks me when I am worrying about making a phone call to ask for advice or help – “Would you even think twice about being a resource for someone if they called and asked you?”  The answer is always no.  We love helping – that’s why we are criminal defense attorneys.

Finally, make sure from the start that you are developing an individual practice that is client-centered. Take advantage of the really high-quality training out there that is available to help you develop that framework and the skills. Talk with and shadow mentors and colleagues. The criminal legal system is dehumanizing – you have an obligation to ensure that your practice centers the dignity, humanity, and autonomy of your clients.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor