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Senator: Public defenders representing children, mentally ill should be specialists

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State lawmakers are in the process of drafting legislation to make sure people who cannot afford attorneys get adequate legal representation in criminal court. One of the complaints about Michigan’s system is it does not ensure public defenders have the skills and experience they need to properly represent their clients.

State Senator Bruce Caswell served on the governor’s commission on indigent defense. He says the system has to recognize the special needs of defendants who are children or people with mental health issues.

“Now there are some of them who belong in prison because of the heinous things they do,” he said. “But there are others that I would say we need to examine and look at to say, could we deal with this in a different way? And getting appropriate defense for them, I think, enables us to ask that question and differentiate, and I think the same is true for the mentally ill and the mentally impaired.”

Caswell says the new rules need to ensure public defenders appointed to represent children are specialists.

“There’s a certain expertise that’s necessary to deal with this. It’s considerably different from dealing with adults – an expertise on the part of the lawyers, so I wanted to raise that to a higher level both in training and how we do this in a different way,” he said. “Because once we send them to prison, they’re changed, and they’re changed forever.”

Poor legal representation is considered one reason why so many teens in Michigan are sentenced to prison time. The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for minors as unfair because they don’t take into account each child’s circumstances.

Hearings on new laws covering indigent defendants are supposed to begin this summer.

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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