Wayne County makes deal for new public defender office

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans says “everyone has a right to quality representation no matter their financial means."

Poor and low-income Wayne County residents will have another option for getting legal services.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Rick Jones, executive director of Neighborhood Defender Service, signed a contract Thursday that will allow NDS to operate a public defender office in Detroit through a partnership with the county.

Jones' organization will bolster legal representation for Wayne County's most vulnerable residents, said county officials.

Under the new contract, Neighborhood Defender Service, a national organization,  will handle about 4,000-5,000 adult felony cases per year.

“Everyone has a right to quality representation no matter their financial means, it’s a cornerstone of our democracy,” Evans said in a press release Thursday announcing the program.

“We see this as a critical step to ensuring we have a public defender office based on nationwide best practices that ensures all people navigating the criminal justice system receive quality representation," he said. "We wanted a partner who could provide a holistic approach with a proven track record, and that’s what NDS brings to Wayne County.”

The NDS office will be funded by nearly $8 million provided from a $17 million state-funded grant from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. Wayne County commissioners approved it June 6. 

“This will double the number of attorneys in the public defender office, but they will be handling the same amount of cases,” said James Heath, corporation counsel for Wayne County. “This translates to more time training and (providing) services for each individual case. It will also enable the same attorney to appear at all critical points for the client, instead of attorneys standing in for each other when they might not be as familiar with the facts of the case.”

In addition to the NDS contract,  Wayne County commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center two years ago to examine the county’s public defender office. The report, funded by a state grant, concluded that chronically stagnant state funding led to increased caseloads that could jeopardize defendants' right to effective counsel.

“Our goal has always been the best possible indigent defense. Unfortunately as a society our investment has fallen well short of funding that goal,” Evans said. “I applaud the MIDC and the state for putting more resources behind this effort and look forward to what NDS can do to ensure our criminal justice system serves everyone fairly.”

Neighborhood Defender Service will open in the  fall and provide "holistiic" criminal defense services in a quarter of Wayne County Circuit Court cases.  

NDS of Harlem has provided criminal, civil and family legal services in upper Manhattan for more than 25 years. I 

“The people of Wayne County have a right to quality representation, and we are honored to bring it to them,” said Jones, a Wayne County native who grew up in Detroit. “We know what it means to work in communities negatively impacted by mass incarceration and will endeavor to provide our clients, their families and their communities with a level of service that keeps them safe and intact.”

NDS's teams include lawyers, social workers, advocates, administrators and investigators.

“Neighborhood Defender Service is a nationally recognized leader in providing premier representation for indigent defendants,” Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell said Thursday. “It is critical that the indigent population receives first-class representation and I am confident this agreement will provide exceptional service to indigent defendants from all of our communities.”


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