How a public defender’s office works
As Alpena County ponders change, another county shows how things might be better
ALPENA — You have the right to an attorney.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
And if that attorney is overloaded with cases, has to put paid clients first to make a living, or is underpaid, you may not get everything the Constitution says you have coming to you.
Alpena County could be doing better by its indigent defendants, said attorney Bill Pfeifer, who is in charge of recent, state-mandated attempts at improving the county’s criminal defense for people who can’t afford it.
One option the county may consider, Pfeifer said, is the formation of a public defender’s office.
Awarded more than $744,000 since October 2018 to improve its indigent defense system, Alpena County has made several changes, including trying to use more local defense attorneys to cover the hundreds of defendants who enter the county’s courts each year unable to afford their own lawyer.
Nine attorneys, up from the original three, now handle indigent defense cases.
Most of the newly added attorneys, however, can’t — or won’t — take enough cases to make a real difference in the workload, Pfeifer said.
Public defender offices, however, like prosecutor offices run by the county, hire a full-time staff, dedicated to doing the work necessary to offer a strong, vigorous defense for anyone who can’t afford it.
In early 2018, only eight public defender offices existed in Michigan. Since the state instituted new standards and awarded $86.7 million in grant money to help counties meet those standards, 22 new public defender offices have been opened across the state, according to the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.
The new offices follow a variety of models. Some operate as nonprofits. Others are regional, providing full-time indigent defense for multiple counties.
In some instances, according to Indigent Defense Commission Executive Director Loren Khogali, counties first tried to improve their indigent defense by adding more court-appointed attorneys, as Alpena did.
Discovering that approach to be inadequate, some counties changed their approach, instead using state funding to create a public defender office, Khogali said.
Alpena County may turn to those counties for ideas on how to get more improvements out of its indigent defense reforms.
‘WE DESPERATELY NEEDED A CHANGE’
One such public defender office, opened in October 2018, was created in response to the new state standards and because “we desperately needed a change,” according to Johanna Carey, chief attorney at the Wexford-Missaukee County Public Defender Office in Cadillac.
Like Alpena County, similarly sized Wexford County previously contracted several attorneys to handle their indigent defense cases, which made up the vast majority of defendants who came into the court system, Carey said.
The attorneys, juggling their court-appointed caseload along with paid clients to help them earn enough to make a living, didn’t have enough time to visit clients in jail or meet with clients before arraignment.
Frazzled court-appointed attorneys would show up in court without the files they needed, Carey said, or sometimes not show up at all.
“It was hard to watch,” she said.
In 2018, when the MIDC was instituting new standards and awarding grants to ensure constitutionally adequate indigent defense, a committee in Wexford County started planning for a change that would take a shaky system and make it better.
Today, the Wexford-Missaukee Public Defender’s Office employs four full-time attorneys — one of those added just last month — whose only job is to provide the best possible defense for anyone who can’t afford an attorney.
Now, when someone is arrested, they are sure to see an attorney before their first court hearing. They have someone to explain their options and make sure they understand what’s happening, Carey said.
Pulling a full-time salary with benefits, instead of fitting in as many paid clients as possible to earn a living, the attorneys at the public defender office have tremendously more time to make motions, talk to clients, and consider the best options for each case, she said.
They also get to know their clients on a more personal level, enabling the attorneys to present them to a judge as a real human with real-world issues, said Nicholas Klaus, who joined the office in late January.
‘BECAUSE WE SHOULD’
On a recent Friday afternoon, Klaus and Carey stared at a computer screen in Klaus’s office, listening intently to a recording of a police interview.
“There!” Carey exclaimed.
Klaus had been right. The recorded officer had ignored their client’s request for a lawyer, and the attorneys would be able to fight to have a confession suppressed.
In the private practice where he used to work, there had been nobody with whom to share ideas, and fewer resources to prove innocence or fight too-serious charges, Klaus said.
The countys’ public defender office, headquartered in a converted house in Cadillac, is funded primarily by the state. The two counties share a small portion of the office’s budget, the amount based on an average of previous years’ expenses for indigent defense.
The rest of the $989,000 budget is paid by a grant from MIDC.
Before the public defender’s office was formed, the counties had about $45,000 to spend on indigent defense, Carey said. That amount was scarcely enough to pay the retained attorneys for their work.
Now, people who are accused of a crime not only have an attorney with time for them, they also have the power of investigators, experts, and polygraphs at their disposal, resources that put them on a level playing field with the county prosecutor’s office.
Indigent defense attorneys contracted by the local government, as opposed to those working in a public defender office, are required to request county funds to pay for such outside resources. Even if their request is approved — which is not a given — the request tips off the prosecution to the defense’s case.
In addition to the four attorneys, the Wexford-Missaukee office has support staff to prepare files, handle mailings, type motions, and make sure the attorneys are organized for each day’s work, help that is invaluable to providing the best possible defense to each client, Carey said.
Providing that best defense is the county’s job, according to the Constitution, Carey said, whether the client is guilty or not.
An attorney who is focused on a case, with time to search for erroneous police procedures, incorrect handling on the part of the courts, or other causes for dismissal, helps make sure people are not punished unfairly, she said.
Wexford and Missaukee counties are more often fighting the charges against indigent defendants. The counties have seen an increase in trials since the institution of the defender’s office, Carey reported.
And, she said proudly, the defense has won the last four of them.
A former prosecutor, Carey said her county’s public defender office has leveled the playing field “because we can, and because we should.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.