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Editorial: Detroit finally asks for — and gets — $7M for poor defendants

The Detroit News

You can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket. And you can't get a grant from the state if you don't submit a proposal.

Detroit learned that the hard way when it lost out on millions of state dollars to pay for indigent defense because of bungling by the 36th District Court.

The funds were available from an $86 million program signed into law by former Gov. Rick Snyder to provide an adequate defense for those too poor to pay for their own attorneys.

Detroit was the only eligible court in the state that failed to submit a plan by the deadline last fall. That was particularly egregious, since it is the court with the largest population of indigent defendants in need of help paying their legal fees.

The court also failed to submit a proposal the previous year, and when one was finally offered in August by former Chief Judge Nancy Blount, it was deemed too inadequate to win approval. And it only asked for $1.1 million.

Judge William McConico placed winning the defense grant at the top of his priority list.

But then the state Supreme Court booted Blount from the leadership post, in part because of her failure to secure the indigent funds, and replaced her as chief with Judge William McConico.

McConico placed winning the defense grant at the top of his priority list (after he rescinded Blount’s ban on pens and notepads in courtrooms.) Working with David Massaron, the city’s chief financial officer, Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia and Dwayne Anderson, the project manager hired by the city, daily meetings were held with the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which distributes the money, to come up with a  comprehensive proposal.

It was pulled together in roughly a month and on Tuesday the MIDC unanimously approved a $7.3 million grant for the 36th District Court. 

“The money will allow us to provide actual defense for our population that can’t afford to hire attorneys,” McConico says. “Defendants have not always been represented at felony arraignments. Now, they will be represented at every stage. And if cases go to trial, the defense attorneys will have the same resources as the prosecutor.

“They will be able to hire investigators and mount a true defense that is not stacked toward one side. Defendants were not getting access to the justice they were entitled to, and now that is being rectified.”

Along with defense attorneys and investigators, the grant will also pay for private meeting rooms where lawyers and their clients can talk, and an upgrade of equipment to better facilitate video arraignments, among other things. 

Massaron called the outcome “a great deal for the city. It gives the court the resources it needs.”

The lesson from this, he says, is basic:

“The city shouldn't turn down free money. And when it applies for money, it should ask for what it needs.”