Indigent defense investments a good first step

Everyone is entitled to a fair fight, which is why the Constitution guarantees those who are accused of a crime the right to a defense attorney, whether or not they can afford one.

But Michigan, like most other states, has not done well at protecting that right.

Though courts are a branch of state government, funding for court-appointed lawyers (and many other court functions) has fallen to often cash-strapped counties and other local governments. That has left poor defendants represented by overworked, underpaid attorneys with little incentive beyond their own morals and ethics to work hard on behalf of their client.

Innocent people are going to jail, with nearly half of the overturned convictions in Michigan attributed at least in part to inadequate legal defense, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Not only is that morally wrong, it also means means taxpayer dollars are wasted incarcerating the wrong people and the real culprit could remain at large.

That’s why we read with great interest Julie Riddle’s recent dispatch about the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which is investing state money into local governments’ indigent defense systems to mandate and incentivize better representation for poor defendants.

In Northeast Michigan, that money has been used to change the way lawyers are paid to encourage more work on clients’ behalf and to invest in courthouse infrastructure to make it easier for attorneys to communicate with their clients, among other investments.

More work remains — court-appointed attorneys are still paid a fraction of private lawyers, and defendants still lack the ability to investigate their own case as well as the police — but the steps highlighted in Riddle’s story are good, important first steps.

We encourage the state to continue making such investments, and we encourage readers to contact their lawmakers to tell them this is an important issue worthy of state funds.



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