LANSING, Mich.- The current indigent defense system in Ingham County is failing minorities and the poor in our community. The court appointed system in Ingham fails to provide adequate defense to those who cannot afford an attorney. Ingham County should set the standard in our state when it comes to indigent defense.

The Ingham County Prosecutor is the Chief Law Enforcement Official in our county and it is imperative that this office be a leader for justice in our community, that is why I strongly support a Public Defenders Office in Ingham County. If elected to serve as the next Prosecutor for Ingham County I will continue to advocate for a Public Defenders Office and justice for all of the residents in our community.

I have spent most of my career in prosecution, but actually started out as a court appointed attorney for juvenile court here in Ingham County. Specialty courts and the pre-trial diversion program play a huge role in helping us achieve the best outcomes for our community in our justice system. I am very proud of my work in helping establish the first pre-trial diversion program in Ingham County in 1975, which is still in effect today. Along with supervising the diversion program in Lansing for the past 29 years. However, while These programs undoubtedly are invaluable tools they are not replacements to an adequate defense

The worst of our justice system comes when we prosecute the innocent. Providing quality defense to the accused is a constitutional requirement and a must for our justice system to work for everyone in our community, especially minorities and those without financial means.

The Problem

The current system in our county fails to provide adequate defense in a number of ways. I will outline some of them.

The system starts poorly from the beginning with judges selecting who is on the list of court appointed attorneys. By having judges select who is and who is not on the court appointed list, at its worst leads to corruption and at its best leads to the appearance of impropriety. If a court appointed attorney wants to try a case and the judge disagrees with the merits of the case, the judge may decide to remove that attorney from the court appointed list. While I believe we have a quality judicial branch in Ingham County, it is unacceptable and inherently improper to allow judges to select the accused’s defense.

Judge Thomas Boyd who is a member of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission articulated this problem in an article written by Toni Gantert in June of 2013 for www.legalnews.com.

“Boyd said it’s important that judges not be involved because of potential conflicts of interest. He said he was at a conference and a Wayne County Judge asked how he would fund his re-election campaigns if he wasn’t allowed to assign attorneys public defender cases.”

“He wasn’t kidding. No one laughed,” Boyd said. “It leads to corruption.”

The second problem with Ingham’s current system is the varying degrees of resources available to the court appointed attorneys. Some of the attorneys on the court appointed list may have access to research tools such as ICLE (Institute of Continuing Legal Education) and Westlaw but these resources are expensive and as a result, a number of court appointed attorneys may not have access to these tools. In addition, court appointed attorneys may not have the sufficient staff to assist them in doing research. There are no actual qualifications required to be on the court appointed list, it is completely up to the judicial discretion. Someone with no experience could be assigned felony level cases if a judge agrees to put them on the list.

The third problem with the current court appointed system is the voucher system. Currently when a defendant is sentenced they are ordered to pay a fee for their court appointed attorney, but the attorney does not file their voucher for their work until after sentencing, so in effect a defendant can pay more in a fee than what ultimately the attorney is paid, or the defendant could pay significantly less than what the attorney files their voucher for. There is no consistent determinant factor into what the fee should be, it is up to judicial discretion.

The fourth problem with the current system is what our court appointed attorneys are paid. They are extremely under paid for their work. Receiving less than a quarter of what a retained attorney would receive. The system puts an immense burden on court appointed attorneys to plea cases quickly, which primarily impacts minorities and those without financial means in our community.

The Solution

In June of this year the Michigan Supreme Court conditionally approved a set of minimum standards for the delivery of indigent defense services in Michigan. The standards were created by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission with members from across the state appointed by Governor Rick Snyder. An Ingham County Public Defenders Office would satisfy these standards in the most efficient and effective way possible. Most importantly it will help our community achieve justice in our system.

The Public Defenders office would have to be approved by the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. With the increase of standards, the State of Michigan will provide additional funding to each county for indigent defense. It is expected that a Public Defenders Office would need comparable funding to that of the Prosecutor’s Office. A full-time staff of 25 not including externs and interns would be possible with funding secured from the State and defendant fees. The staff would consist of 21 Public Defenders along with four full-time paralegals. This office would provide resources for improved defense of the indigent and would be independent of the judiciary. The Chief Public Defender would be appointed by the Board of Commissioners.

To be clear the standards set by the MIDC do not require a Public Defender’s Office. It will be up to the Board of Commissioners to decide how best to use the resources provided by the State of Michigan to meet those standards. Establishing a Public Defender’s Office would best meet this goal.

I have created an online petition on Change.org, CLICK HERE FOR LINK.

This petition will be submitted to the Board of Commissioners in January of 2017. I am asking that all Ingham County residents that believe in justice sign this petition.

Thank you

Candidate for Ingham County Prosecutor

Billie Jo O’Berry