…And Justice for All? Report identifies deficiencies in legal services for the low income

For 16 years, Wayne County’s Public Defender Office has been sort of flat funded. An example of a flat funding would be paying the electric company a set amount every month regardless of the actual cost of the electricity used. Sometimes it may work out but eventually you may still end up in shut off status. So what that means here is that Wayne County paid the same dollar amount each year to the Public Defender’s Office despite increases in workload and the cost of doing business thus leaving very little money left to defend cases.
A new report has been released by the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) and has identified several deficiencies in legal services for Wayne County’s indigent. The 6AC is a nonpartisan, non-faith, technical assistance center that aims to help policy makers meet their constitutional obligations as stated under the sixth amendment—which is the right to an attorney.
“When you have a set amount of money and your costs are going up and the amount of cases are increases you have to cut costs somewhere,” stated 6AC Executive Director David Carroll. They began cutting support staff which are your paralegals, investigators…they’re down to 16 attorneys who have to cover an incredible amount of court cases.”
This means that many public defenders share workloads which can lead to a defendant feeling like they’re on an assembly line as they’re having to retell their stories to each new attorney that steps in. In the report, 6AC made the argument that the county was not upholding their constitutional obligation by providing what has been described as little more than a warm body standing next to a client.
“The Public defense attorneys in Wayne County are prevented from providing effective representation because they lack sufficient time, resources, and support staff to properly prepare cases.”
In response to these revelations, and reform efforts organized by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC), Wayne County has secured two grants awarding state funds to bolster indigent legal services.
One MIDC grant for $17,275,171 million will go toward addressing the main findings of the Sixth Amendment Center. A second MIDC grant of $901,371 will fund a team of experts to specifically determine how to best elevate Wayne County’s indigent defense delivery system in the future. MIDC approves grants to improve representation in every community in the State and while Wayne County represents over 30 percent of all felony cases, $18 million in State grants will be less than 22 percent of the amounts granted statewide.
“The addition of state funding will make it possible to address the serious problems identified in the 6AC report, and the standards adopted by the MIDC,” said Dawn Van Hoek, a consultant for Wayne County and former director of Michigan’s appellate defense system. “It is essential that indigent defense become a higher priority, not only to ensure justice for citizens, but to avoid costly mistakes.”
Costly mistakes such as wrongful convictions. While there is no existing data that shows the correlation of wrongful convictions for people using public defenders it’s easy to see how the financial shortfall can increase the likelihood for a wrongful conviction.
“We know that giving attorneys the tools they need to effectively represent clients will mitigate the circumstances that lead to wrongful convictions,” says state MIDC Director Loren Khogali.
Requiring training, early appointment of counsel and earlier meetings with between clients and counsel, combined with the increased use of experts and investigators will only help the indigent defense system as a whole.

Chamar Avery – wrongfully convicted

“I think it’s great that they are receiving more funding but the bottom line is that people need to do their jobs. There are people’s lives at stake,” said Chamar Avery, 36 of Detroit. Avery is well versed in the ways of the PDO as it was a public defender who represented him when he was imprisoned at the age of 17 for a murder that he did not commit.
“When I heard the cops were looking for me I willingly went to the station because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I figured I would talk to them answer a few questions and go home,” stated Avery.
But it wasn’t that simple.
He ended up being charged in the shooting death of a pizza delivery driver. “I couldn’t believe it. But still I wasn’t scared because I knew I didn’t do anything. I had full faith in the justice system and my attorney.”
Avery maintained that he was nowhere near the scene because at the time of the murder he was getting his car repaired. “I told my attorney where to go and who to speak with. He came back and told me he had left a card but no one had contacted him back. And that was that,” said Avery.
When it came time to go to trial two of Avery’s co-defendants took plea deals while he made the decision to have his day in court. “I thought there was no way I’m going to cop to something I didn’t do.”
Avery took his chances in court and after a whirlwind two-day murder trial, was convicted and sentenced to 20-50 years in prison. He went in at 17 and was unceremoniously released at the age of 25. He would still be there had it not been for his persistence and decision to file a motion for a Ginther hearing.
If you have been convicted of a crime because of ineffective assistance of counsel, one legal option is to file a motion for Ginther Hearing. The term for this motion is derived from the decision People v Ginther, 390 Mich 436 (1973).
“My release was the result of me doing my research and figuring it out for myself,” stated Avery. At that hearing he was allowed to introduce evidence that he felt was vital to his case but overlooked.
In the end the judge allowed Avery’s new attorney to verify his alibi. The owner of the repair shop took the stand and corroborated Avery’s statement that he was on the other side of town getting his car serviced and therefore could not have been at the scene of the crime. Avery was released sometime after that hearing without so much as an apology.
He attributes his jailing to the ineffective defense provided by his public defender. “I felt like he wasn’t completely working my case. I had an alibi,” recalls Avery. “In the 8 years, I was imprisoned my story never changed, my alibi never changed. Why did I have to lose 8 years of my life? Where is my justice?”
The MIDC is hoping that with the 6AC report and the increased funding will prevent story’s like Chamar Avery’s from occurring.
“Although the findings of the report are troublesome, the process of standards-based assessment, deliberation and financial grants shows that the MIDC is effectively working with local funding units to rectify decades-old problems in the delivery of the constitutional right to counsel,” says state MIDC Director Loren Khogali.
Planned Improvements Include More Staff and Better Facilities. The report recommends adding 75 additional personnel to adequately staff a public defender office handling 25% of the county’s felony caseload, including attorneys, investigators, and social workers.
“From better courtrooms to a safer jail facility to improved meeting spaces for lawyers and clients, the new criminal justice center helps to improve conditions for defendants housed in our jails as well as the law enforcement officers and lawyers who will work at the complex,” said Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans.

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