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Detroit’s 36th District Court, which handles the poorest defendants in the state, forfeited $1.1 million last year in funds intended to provide legal counsel to those without the means to hire their own attorneys.

Unless the court and the city can get a plan together quickly, they risk losing the money again this year.

Meanwhile, the court has been in violation of state indigent defense rules and is facing a lawsuit over bail practices that keep impoverished, mostly black defendants charged with minor offenses locked up for long periods before their trial. Faced with the same charges, the suit claims, white defendants with more financial resources would likely go free.

Despite efforts by former Gov. Rick Snyder to equalize justice in the state, foot dragging by the city is working hard against that goal.        

Detroit is the only entity in the state that does not have a signed plan for meeting the standards set by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission for providing adequate legal counsel to the poor.

“Everyone in the state has gone along with the process with the notable exception of the city of Detroit,” says James Fisher, a retired judge and member of the commission. 

The MIDC was established under legislation signed by Snyder to improve indigent defense and Michigan's near bottom ranking in providing the poor with competent representation. Last year, the Legislature set aside $86 million to help courts meet the standards set by the commission, and as the state's largest district court, Detroit should have received a large share of the money. 

Each of the 132 courts that provide legal counsel to the poor was required to submit a compliance plan and estimate the cost of implementation. The 36th District Court prepared a plan that asked for just $1.1 million. It was approved by the MIDC, but the city never signed the contract.

So the money never came through, and until just recently, felony defendants were still making their initial appearance in court without counsel. That's believed to be one reason the Michigan Supreme Court just notified Chief Judge Nancy Blount she will be replaced as head of the court in January by Judge William McConico.

Blount says a couple of weeks ago, she implemented a pilot program that created a pool of four or five attorneys to attend the roughly 40 felony arraignments the court hears a day.

The judge says she "mistakenly believed we were in compliance," based on her interpretation of federal court rulings regarding legal counsel at arraignments. She says the size of the court, and logistical difficulties created by housing local inmates in a state-run correctional facility are challenging. 

She says the court submitted a plan in August but the city didn't sign it. "I haven't heard anything from them," she says. 

From what I've been able to piece together, the city, which funds Recorder's Court but doesn't run it, determined the $1.1 million asked for in the plan prepared by the court was not nearly enough. The standards require not only more paid attorneys, but also confidential meeting rooms, and more staff will be needed to monitor compliance.

Fisher says Detroit was awarded the money it requested. 

“That was their plan,” he says. “As was the cost estimate. We sent them what they asked for.”

Now the city is paying for a project manager to beef up the plan and come up with a more realistic cost estimate. The work has to be done by the MIDC February meeting to qualify for funds this year.

The situation is made more urgent by a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of seven black defendants filed by the ACLU of Michigan, which charges the court's cash bail system violates the civil rights of the poor.

A key claim of the lawsuit, which names Blount as a defendant, is that the right to counsel was violated because attorneys were not present when bail is set. Arraignments typically last just two to four minutes, according to the suit, and those charged receive little explanation of their rights.

The result is that defendants who likely would be bonded out in other jurisdictions spend weeks or months in the lock-up while their cases are adjudicated.

And nobody can say for sure when things are going to change.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

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

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