Appellate Defender Commission Applauds Governor, Anticipates Meaningful Reform
The Appellate Defender Commission applauded today Governor Rick Snyder’s creation of a state commission charged with examining, and recommending improvements to, Michigan’s failing trial-level public defense system. “The Governor’s leadership on such a challenging task is inspiring,” said Cooley Auburn Hills Campus Dean John Nussbaumer, Chair of the Commission that oversees the long-standing statewide system for appointing appellate counsel in criminal cases. “We see the unjust, inefficient, and wasteful results of an under-resourced and uncoordinated trial-level system in the cases handled by assigned appellate counsel every day. It’s time to focus on the front end of the process, designing a trial-level system that actually delivers on the constitutional guarantee of the right to effective assistance of counsel,” he added. “The Appellate Defender Commission looks forward to working with the new Indigent Defense Advisory Commission and sharing the lesson we have learned at the appellate level, which is that a politically independent and adequately funded system better guarantees justice to our citizens and is more efficient in the long run.”
The Michigan Legislature reformed the appellate system for indigent assigned cases over thirty years ago with passage of the Appellate Defender Act, MCL 780.711. The Act, which serves as a model for numerous other states, created a statewide litigation unit, the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO), and an administrative unit, the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS). SADO is Michigan’s only state-funded public defender office, providing counsel to approximately 17% of indigent criminal defendants who choose to appeal their convictions. MAACS administers a roster of private counsel handling the remainder of cases, who are paid by individual counties for their defense services. Significantly, the Appellate Defender Act created independence in the process of assigning counsel on appellate cases, performance standards, caseload limits and training requirements, all considered essential to a constitutionally adequate system. Both SADO and MAACS are overseen by the Appellate Defender Commission, an independent seven-member body appointed by the Governor.
“Providing the resources that effective trial counsel need is cost-effective, as well as constitutionally required,” said Dawn Van Hoek, Director of SADO. “Our staff attorneys correct errors in dozens of cases each year that might be avoided, if trial-level assigned counsel were adequately trained, paid, supported with investigators and expert witnesses, and supervised.” SADO’s correction of sentencing errors to date in 2011 has already amounted to over $5 million dollars in savings to prison costs incurred by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Ms. Van Hoek has offered testimony in both Congress and the state legislature on the fiscal and human impact of an under-resourced public defense system.
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