The poor deserve strong legal defense
On my last visit to Rikers Island Correctional Facility, I hugged my 18-year-old client goodbye.
I worked with him for more than a year, representing him on a robbery case. My client was homeless, and before Rikers he was living in a shelter with his mother, a recovering drug addict. He was trying to finish high school and find a job all while frequently having to wonder where his next meal would come from.
This case, and upwards of 75 others at any given time, made up my caseload as a public defender in New York City. I served mostly black and Hispanic, lower-income individuals charged with crimes who could not afford an attorney. My office was well resourced with experienced and dedicated supervisors. I had supportive colleagues and a team of office administrators, social workers and investigators with the same goal of effectively representing our clients. I spent the previous five years doing this work, and I was leaving for a role in a new agency in my home state, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.
While I was passionate about my work and enjoyed living in New York, I felt an increasingly more acute pull to Michigan, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. About two years ago I’d begun aggressively researching the public defender system in Michigan. I could not believe what I found: severely under resourced public defenders, often one or two for an entire county, unfathomably high case loads, and nominal compensation for extremely difficult work. I met with Detroit-based attorneys about the condition of the public defender system. I developed a plan to take a sabbatical from my job in Brooklyn to come home and open a public defender office.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that the assistance of counsel be provided to individuals charged in criminal prosecutions. The Supreme Court has held that this counsel must be provided regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. However, neither the Constitution nor the court explicitly specify how this should be done. Consequently, the state of Michigan transferred implementation of this requirement to each of its 83 counties. The result has been described as an “uncoordinated patchwork quilt of delivery systems” based on county resources and their interpretation of the mandate.
Failing to ensure that adequate representation is provided means that individuals are susceptible to wrongful conviction, avoidable delays that result in unnecessary time behind bars, and lack of alternatives to incarceration programs like drug and mental health treatment.
Because the funding for these systems is reliant on strained county budgets, many lawyers assigned these cases do not have the tools to adequately do their jobs. These tools include investigators to help locate witnesses and uncover evidence that could be useful in forming a defense and frequently to prove innocence, and adequate training to ensure that attorneys have the skills to handle the cases assigned to them. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder established the Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, which made recommendations for improving the state’s court appointed counsel system.
The main objective of my current role is to work with court systems and county administrations to implement legislatively-mandated standards that will ensure that every individual in the state charged with a crime is provided a competent, well-trained attorney, regardless of their ability to pay.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction of this complex legal landscape and proud of the progress being made on behalf of the constitutional rights of residents statewide.
Ashley Carter, a Detroit native, is an attorney focusing on criminal justice reform nationwide.