Finley: Wayne County acts to assure equal justice for poor

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The wrongfully convicted typically have two things in common: They're poor, and they're represented by attorneys ill equipped to provide them with an adequate defense.

"That's overwhelmingly true," says David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. "The process in Michigan is that attorneys receive a minimal fee to take indigent clients into court to enter a plea. They don't get paid enough to visit their clients beforehand or to do an investigation into the charges against them."

Warren Evans, Wayne County Executive

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans hopes to upend a system that has valued expediency over justice by bringing in Neighborhood Defender Service, the acclaimed New York City not-for-profit law firm that specializes in defending clients too poor to pay for their own attorneys. 

NDS has recruited a staff of 34 lawyers, double the amount in the previous public defenders office, and will provide them with the time and resources necessary to give the accused a vigorous defense. 

"I didn't want to just pour more money into a broken system," Evans says. "We wanted to do something transformative."

The goal is to end a two-tiered justice system in Wayne County, one in which the poor are far more likely than those of greater means to end up behind bars. 

Not only should indigent defendants see more zealous advocacy in court, but NDS will also deploy social workers and mental health professionals to help address the things that led to their criminal behavior. 

Public defenders, who handle about 25% of the indigent cases in Wayne County, will be supported by a team that includes investigators to help prepare a defense. NDS will also train court appointed attorneys, who handle the remaining 75% of the cases in Wayne County. 

Attorney case loads will be cut in half, to the national standard of roughly 150 clients each. And public defenders will no longer be incentivized to move clients through the system as quickly as possible.

"Clients can expect they will get innovative, holistic representation," says Chantá Parker, director of the Detroit office, the first outside of New York City for NDS. "We want to understand who  you are and what brought you into the system in the first place."

One hoped for result is fewer defendants held in the county jail while awaiting trial because they can't afford to post bond and lack have advocates to help navigate the process.

"For the first time, Wayne County is going to have a competent and professional public defenders office," says Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who worked for NDS while she was a law student in New York. "What we know is that the leading cause of wrongful convictions is defense lawyers who are overworked and don't have the time to provide the poor with the same quality defense you or I would get." 

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack

Counties across the state are being pushed to upgrade legal services to the poor by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, established three years ago under legislation signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. The law provides more funds for representing poor defendants.

Wayne County is getting an additional $17 million from the state for indigent defense, more than tripling the $7 million it had been spending.  

The county has been the most egregious in sending innocent people to jail, in part because it handles the most criminal cases, but also due to a justice system that served as a railroad to prison for poor defendants.

Defense lawyers, because of their workload, low fees and sometimes wanton incompetence, defaulted to pleading down cases rather than taking them to trial, even when there was compelling evidence of innocence.

Other factors also contributed. The Detroit Police Crime lab had to be shut down a decade ago after an audit uncovered errors in evidence processing, some of which led to innocent people going to jail.     

The county prosecutor's office had several convictions overturned, and yet continued to resist evidence that might have exonerated those whom the system failed.

George Hunter, the dogged Detroit News police reporter, details some of those wrongful convictions in the fascinating new podcast, "Sins of Detroit." 

But things are changing. Police Chief James Craig ordered his officers to work with Moran and the Michigan Innocence Clinic to review cases where shoddy crime lab results helped send the wrong person to prison.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy two years ago hired noted defense attorney Valerie Newman to head a new Conviction Integrity Unit, with the mission of expediting wrongful conviction claims. Attorney General Dana Nessel created a similar office at the state level in April.

And now Evans, by bringing in Neighborhood Defender Service, is making a huge commitment to  giving poor defendants what the Constitution guarantees them: equal justice.

Catch Nolan Finley on "One Detroit at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.