WITH VIDEO: New headquarters helps attorneys build ‘new era’ of criminal defense
ALPENA — Recently settled into its new office on North 2nd Avenue and Oldfield Street in Alpena, the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office serves people who can’t afford to pay an attorney to help them in court.
A half to three-quarters of people charged with crimes fall into that category, said Rick Steiger, chief public defender with the office.
Without the help of attorneys with the time and resources to launch a strong defense, many people could end up unfairly charged or facing penalties that could keep them from changing their lives for the better, Steiger said.
Everyone deserves a fair shot at justice, no matter how much money they have, he said.
Excited about their new location and eager to take on new clients, Steiger and Deputy Chief Defender Julie Miller on Tuesday enthused about their hopes for ushering in what Miller called a “new era of criminal defense” in the Alpena area.
Open for business in a downtown location since its inception at the beginning of July, the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office remodeled and, early last week, moved into a building that formerly housed several Alpena restaurants.
The location, surrounded by a residential area, allows some clients without transportation to walk to the office while keeping it visible to the public, said Miller, who oversaw the building redesign.
The new, gentle-colored hallways and offices provide a pleasant place for clients to meet privately with their attorneys. A central conference room will soon hold videoconference equipment to enable virtual courtroom and jail visits when necessary, Miller said.
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The office’s four attorneys — Steiger, Miller, Ron Bayot, and Dennis Grenkowicz — have more than 100 years of law experience between them, including a combined three decades of experience as prosecutors.
With experience behind them, resources available because of state funding, and the ability to dedicate all their time to defending people against misdemeanor and felony charges, the attorneys in the Alpena defender office may offer a better defense than attorneys paid out of a client’s pocket, Miller said.
.In the past, Alpena-area court-appointed attorneys have had to squeeze indigent clients around their private practice work and strengthen cases by scrounging whatever free resources they could find on the internet, Miller said.
Funding from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which paid for construction and equipment for the 2nd Avenue office, allows the office’s four attorneys to hire experts and pay for tests.
Dedicated to working for indigent clients and nothing else, the attorneys have time to dig through files, demand interview videos, and file motions, making sure police and prosecutors followed the law in observing their clients’ rights, Steiger said.
Part of their role as defenders, he said, includes helping law enforcement and courts look beyond police reports and criminal histories to see defendants as a whole person.
In addition to handling individual cases, Miller and Steiger will advocate for the introduction of local diversion courts, similar to Alpena County’s drug court, to help people with mental illness or co-occurring disorders fix the root of their problem rather than only facing punishment in jail.
The Alpena public defender office is one of more than 20 such offices established since 2018, reflecting a statewide push to ensure access to justice for those who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
Steiger and the office’s other attorneys also meet with clients in newly established office space in Atlanta.
People ask all the time how attorneys can defend people who have done awful things, Miller said.
That perspective changes when it’s their child or spouse accused of a crime, Steiger said.
Defending clients is not about beating the charge every time, and defenders don’t want dangerous people walking around freely, Miller said. Rather, public defenders hold law enforcement accountable, guarding against exploitation of the weakest just because it’s easy.
“This is what’s acceptable,” a strong defense says to law enforcement, Steiger said. “This is what we expect out of the city. If you want to put somebody in a cage and lock them up, take away their right to vote and see their family, then prove that they’re deserving of that punishment.”