Focus, Government, and Law

Earlier involvement of court-appointed attorneys may save money

February 28, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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The Kent County Board of Commissioners has a $33,730 grant from the state to fund a pilot program to determine if earlier involvement by court-appointed attorneys helps speed cases through the system and enhances their services for defendants.

Funded by the Michigan Supreme Court State Court Administrative Office, the grant funding will be used by the 63rd District Court in Grand Rapids Township to increase the use of court-appointed attorneys for low-income misdemeanor defendants at their first court appearance or bond hearing. The District Court hopes the program will reduce the number of court appearances necessary in misdemeanor cases.

“Currently, the court provides court-appointed counsel to indigent misdemeanor defendants only after the first pre-trial conference,” said Kevin McKay, 63rd District Court administrator. “The opportunity to meet with a public defender before arraignments or bond hearings could help eliminate additional hearings, which would save staff time and taxpayer money.”

Currently, the District Court is working with the Kent County Office of the Defender, the Kent County Prosecutors Office and the Kent County Office of the Sheriff with a goal of starting the program this month. Some of the grant will be used to have an attorney available for an additional half-day per week for misdemeanor arraignments, providing counsel for eligible indigent defendants being arraigned by video.

Richard E. Hillary, director of the Kent County Office of the Defender, said the office has a contract for 2014 with 63rd District Court to represent misdemeanor defendants who qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. 

“Usually, the court-appointed lawyer meets the defendant at the first pretrial (hearing),” said Hillary, meaning after the arraignment. The grant, he said, will allow his office to speak with the defendants at the initial arraignment. 

In that first consultation with the defendant, “the case will not be discussed in detail, but the system will be explained and, hopefully, a rapport of trust will be established which will facilitate resolution of the case earlier in the court proceedings,” said Hillary.

At that time, the court-appointed attorney “can also make any necessary comments on bond for those incarcerated,” said Hillary.

Anthony C. Greene of Grand Rapids, a defense attorney since 1996, said putting an indigent defendant in contact with his or her court-appointed attorney before the arraignment would be “very beneficial” to the accused for two reasons. Some individuals who might be inclined to plead guilty could fare better with an attorney’s advice and representation.

Greene also cited the benefit of attorney representation at the bond hearing if the accused is being held in jail. Bonds for release from jail are set rather arbitrarily, he said, depending on the judge, and the amount “varies widely.” Having an attorney speak to the judge on behalf of a first-time defendant, for example, could result in a lower bond being set.

Greene said some attorneys would argue that after bond is set, a motion can always be filed later to amend the amount, “but that takes weeks,” said Greene. He said once a bond has been set, in his experience, many judges are reluctant to change the amount previously set by another judge.

Greene said a charge of possession of marijuana could be a good example of when a court-appointed attorney could help a defendant at the arraignment. Many individuals would not be aware of MCL 333.7411, a state law that provides a diversionary program for a first-time pot offender. It allows a plea of guilty to be taken under advisement by the court, with the person put on probation, and there is no loss of driver’s license. After successful completion of probation, there is no conviction record.

The pilot funding will expire Sept. 30, at which time the 63rdDistrict Court will evaluate the program. Evaluation will include tracking the time these misdemeanor cases take to move through the system before and after the pilot, and the number of pleas that are completed at first arraignment, as well as the point when defendants first meet with court-appointed counsel.

“We’re appreciative that the SCAO selected 63rd District Court to pilot this program,” McKay added. “As one of the busiest two-judge district courts in the state, we are always looking for ways to be more efficient.”

If the pilot is successful, the court will evaluate if the program can be continued within its operating budget, and/or identify and apply for additional grant funding.

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