Alpena defender office marks one year of holistic defense

News Photo by Julie Riddle Julie Miller, right, deputy chief defender for the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office, addresses Judge Alan Curtis in Alpena’s 88th District Court on Thursday.

ALPENA — Reducing crime starts with addressing the issues that lead to criminal behavior, defense attorneys say.

On Friday, celebrating their office’s one-year anniversary, attorneys at the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office believe the community benefits when people accused of crime have access to representation that not only protects their rights but also connects them to the help they need to avoid offending again.

The office recently got the OK from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which funds the majority of the office’s expenses, to hire a social worker, who will steer clients toward needed services.

The social worker will also gather information courts can use to decide how long a defendant spends in jail — or if they need to be incarcerated at all — in hopes of giving clients the best chance to fix their lives and contribute positively to the community, said Julie Miller, deputy chief defender for the Alpena defender office.

When the poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and other social ills that often contribute to criminal behavior go unchecked and unaddressed, people swept up in those ills are more likely to commit violent, thoughtless, or otherwise harmful acts, Miller said.

“It’s a community problem,” she said. “It creates a risk of harm to the whole community. Anything that we can all do to try to alleviate that risk, we need to do.”

The Alpena defender office has handled 725 cases since it opened its doors on July 1 of last year.

Replacing the most recent indigent defense system — in which the court assigned criminal defendants who couldn’t afford a lawyer to overworked attorneys already carrying full caseloads — the defender’s office ensures that every client gets the full attention of an attorney fighting only for them.

That focused representation has meant many more motions filed, objections lodged, evidence excluded, and legal battles fought for the defense of indigent defendants, said Rick Steiger, chief public defender.

Using state funding, the office has hired a private investigator, a step in keeping pace with the investigatory strength of the prosecution, which has the full weight of law enforcement at its disposal.

In November, the office moved to a new building on 2nd Avenue north of the Thunder Bay River.

There, clients will soon be able to meet with a social worker who Steiger hopes to have in place by Oct. 1.

That position fits naturally with the office’s commitment to holistic defense, Miller said.

“There’s a lot that we do besides just filing an appearance and showing up in court,” Miller said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding when you get to see the impact on human lives.”

Most clients they represent have something going on in their lives contributing to their illegal actions, Miller said.

Mental illness underlies much criminal behavior, with poverty and lingering trauma striking additional blows that lead people to make poor, irrational decisions, she said.

Holistic defense, a model used widely elsewhere in criminal justice circles, recognizes that addressing such contributing factors to crimes as part of the legal process dramatically reduces a person’s chances of reoffending.

The social worker position will help the Alpena defender office learn about a client’s needs immediately after their arrest and begin to connect clients to mental health workers, social service agencies, and other help even before they get out of jail.

The social worker can help a client consider therapy, make sure they can access needed medication, connect them to medical care, or help them get a new set of clothes for a job interview or figure out how to pay court costs.

The social worker will also help clients gather evidence to prove to a sentencing judge that a defendant makes a good candidate for probation or another type of sentence rather than incarceration, Miller said.

While incarceration is necessary in some instances, unnecessarily long jail or prison sentences keep the defendant from employment and from supporting their family, furthering cycles of poverty and mental health struggles that can lead to a return to criminal behavior, she said.

With the help of its new position, the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office hopes to increase its partnership with other agencies with the same goal of stopping crime before it happens by fixing the problems that instigate it.

A community intent on fighting poverty and other problems — from donated gas cards that help people reach their court appearances to free haircuts to help poor people get jobs — helps break that cycle, leading to fewer kids with parents in jail, less strain on employers from lost employee work hours, and streets safer from impaired drivers, violence, and other crime, she said.

An attorney in Alpena several decades ago, Miller now sees the same people she represented 20 years ago back in court again, still making the same mistakes.

“It’s just so sad to see the same people come through over and over and over,” she said. “We’re constantly thinking, how can we interrupt that pattern?”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.


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