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New order sets eligibility rules for indigent defense

courtroom gavel
Flickr/Joe Gratz

There are now statewide standards to determine when a criminal defendant is entitled to a publicly funded lawyer. It’s part of a years-long effort to overhaul the system. The goal is to ensure indigent defendants get the legal representation they’re entitled to by law.

The order released Thursday by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs creates a new system for determining whether a criminal defendant is entitled to a publicly funded lawyer.

Michigan has been working for years to clean up a patchwork system to ensure criminal defendants are adequately represented no matter where they live. This order will give guidance on how to assess whether a defendant gets an attorney paid for by the public, partially paid for by the public, or can afford to fully foot the bill.

That decision used to rest with local courts and judges.

“This step is creating guidance for how to determine whether someone is truly indigent or has some ability to help pay a little but for some of their defense. Very important,” said State Court Administrator Thomas Boyd, a former judge. He said this a problem that’s been lingering for decades.

“It’s like a big cruise liner that’s been going the wrong direction for 50 years,” he said. “That boat took a while to turn around.”

The order puts that assessment in the hands of a state agency instead of leaving it to local courts and judges. This was one of the recommendations of a commission that examined Michigan’s indigent defense system.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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