Oakland County, Michigan report

Photo: Oakland County, Michigan

FULL REPORT (9.3 MB, PDF file): Sixth Amendment Center, The Right to Counsel in Oakland County, Michigan: Evaluation of Trial-Level Indigent Defense Services in Adult Criminal Cases (October 2022).

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY ONLY (8.0 MB, PDF file): Sixth Amendment Center, The Right to Counsel in Oakland County, Michigan: Evaluation of Trial-Level Indigent Defense Services in Adult Criminal Cases (October 2022).

The State of Michigan delegates to its counties, cities, townships, and villages the responsibility for establishing and administering indigent defense systems to effectively represent indigent adult defendants who face possible incarceration for crimes in the trial courts. The state has accepted a portion of the responsibility for funding the right to counsel through the creation of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) – a statewide entity statutorily empowered to promulgate and oversee the implementation of statewide standards, rules, and procedures to meet the requirements of the Sixth Amendment for adult criminal indigent defense representation in the trial courts and to distribute state funds to local governments to comply with those standards.

This study, funded through MIDC at the request of Oakland County, evaluated Oakland County’s system for providing the right to counsel in those trial courts for which the county government is fiscally responsible – the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court and the 52nd District Court – in an effort to aid the county in determining the feasibility of creating a public defender office.

This evaluation finds that indigent defense services in Michigan were created to service individual courts. Within Oakland County, there are 12 separate indigent defense systems, administered and funded by at least 11 different county and municipal governments, providing right to counsel services in 31 courtrooms at 14 separate court locations. This decentralization of right to counsel services impedes the ability of any of the 12 indigent defense systems within Oakland County to ensure the effective representation of indigent adult criminal defendants in the trial courts.

Moreover, MIDC is required by state law to promulgate standards addressing many aspects of indigent defense representation, and it has not yet completed that work. Of the nine standards proposed by MIDC as of October 2021, six have been approved and funded by the state thus far. There are not yet any statewide standards, for example, regarding reasonable indigent defense caseloads, preventing conflicts between the financial interests of attorneys and the legal interests of their appointed clients, and the need for continuous representation of a defendant by a single attorney, among others. Because the State of Michigan has delegated its constitutional responsibilities to local governments, the local governments – including Oakland County – have exposure to liability for structuring their indigent defense systems in ways that currently violate defendants’ rights to effective assistance of counsel, as discussed in the first three findings of this report.

Subsequently, the evaluation finds that Oakland County’s assigned counsel compensation method creates economic disincentives that impair defense counsel’s ability to provide effective representation and that indigent defense attorneys’ workloads are not controlled to permit effective representation and that indigent defense attorneys do not continuously represent and personally appear at every court appearance throughout the pendency of the case. The systemic deficiencies extend to the county’s oversight of indigent defense services where the county office dedicated to monitor financial and qualitative review is not appropriately staffed and resourced to do the work. This lack of oversight contributes to further systemic challenges including the chilling of the right to counsel by the imposition of public defender fees without considering an individual defendant’s ability to pay. Although the recommendations are directed to Oakland County there are wider implications for the rest of the state in that defendants are best served with a unified indigent defense system serving all criminal court within the geographic boundaries of a county, something that is currently not permissible under current statutes.