Marquette County public defender’s office to be created


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — In light of the recently secured funding for indigent defense in the state budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Marquette County is currently in the process of developing a public defender’s office, which will provide legal counsel for adult defendants in Marquette County’s district and circuit courts who cannot afford counsel.

The development of a Marquette County public defender’s office stems from new requirements set in 2017 by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which seek to improve the quality of indigent defense in Michigan and are part of a response to a 2007 lawsuit against the state over its approach to indigent defense.

Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch said that while the current system has been working well in Marquette County, the “idea is to improve and strengthen the indigent defense system in Michigan.”

“The system currently in place works largely on a system of familiarity and mutual respect between the various offices. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys all seem aware of a sense of proportion in the prosecution of crimes, and respect each other’s roles. This is a strength of the tight-knit community that we live in,” the Marquette County Indigent Defense Plan states. “In a way, however, it is also a vulnerability, because it ultimately rests on the good will, sense of fairness, and camaraderie of the individual people involved. These factors are not universally found in Michigan’s court systems.”

While counties aren’t specifically required to form a public defender’s office under the new requirements, counties must adhere to a set of four new standards for indigent defense, which concern education and training of defense counsel, initial interview with counsel, defense investigation and experts, and counsel present at first appearance in court and other critical stages.

A public defender’s office is one way to meet the standards, Erbisch said, but other counties in the state are pursuing different avenues to meet the standards, such as the creation of assigned counsel systems or contract systems — the Marquette County Board of Commissioners had considered multiple models presented by Marquette County staff and ultimately chose the public defender’s office option, Erbisch said.

“There were three models we presented in there for the board’s consideration and it just so happened that even with the way we looked at this, probably the best one regardless was the public defender’s office,” Erbisch said. “But it also came out, from a financial cost analysis, as the least expensive.”

The county has received input from “all facets of the courts” on the development of the office, Erbisch said, noting that they gathered input from attorneys who do indigent defense work, judges, the prosecuting attorney’s office, and many other parties that are involved with courts.

The public defender’s office will be funded by both state and local monies, Erbisch said, noting the county was asked to average annual indigent defense costs over a period of three years to determine the annual local share for the county.

“Counties (are required) to contribute the average amount spent for adult public defense in district and circuit courts and our average cost that came up, it was over a three-year period, ended up being $224,000,” he said.

The remaining monies needed to set up the office for the 2018-2019 fiscal year are approximately $631,000 and will be funded by the state, Erbisch said.

It is important to note, however, Erbisch said, that local municipalities are not required to meet the new indigent defense standards unless the state provides funding, per Public Act 93 of 2013 — and there’s no guarantee the state will continue funding indigent defense in future budgets.

“They’ll need to continue to fund that, so we’ll obviously work with our legislators locally and encourage them to make sure that the state continues to support fully the funding of indigent defense as we’re going forward,” he said.

The county will receive their first installment grant from the state in October to fund the public defender’s office — the county will then have 180 days to implement the plan developed and approved by the Marquette County Board.

While financial commitments cannot be made until after the funding is formally distributed in October, Erbisch said they can be “moving forward and starting the process, so that when that first grant comes, that we’re in a position to start to implement over the next six months.”

Part of the preparations are creating and posting job descriptions, Erbisch said, as the new public defender’s office will initially employ three attorneys, one of which will be the chief public defender. The office will also employ a legal secretary and office manager, he said.

“We’ve created the job descriptions for the chief public defender and assistant public defender positions,” Erbisch said. “I anticipate advertising the chief public defender positon relatively soon because that person will ultimately help build the rest of the office.”

In addition to the three defenders employed at the office, there will also be a list of attorneys to handle overflow and conflicts of interest, Erbisch said, with funding specifically set aside for this purpose.

Beyond staffing preparations, the county has also examined its options for housing the new office — while there had initially been hopes of placing the new public defender’s office inside the courthouse complex, Erbisch said, the office will be housed outside of the courthouse complex due to limited space.

“Hopefully, it will be very close to the courthouse, that’s one of the objectives,” he said.

The cost of leasing the space, purchasing desks and otherwise equipping the office will be included in the grant, Erbisch said, noting that with the exception of the lease space, these will not be recurring costs.

Another one-time cost associated with the project is the construction of attorney-client meeting rooms in the courthouse complex, as providing a space for these meetings is one of the new requirements brought about by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.

“These two (attorney-client meeting) rooms in (the Henry A. Skewis Annex) will add a really nice feature for them and we’ll be modifying one of the spaces over at the original sandstone courthouse next door that will help ensure it is private,” he said.

The county will submit its next budget to the state in early 2019, Erbisch said — while this doesn’t give them much time from the initial grant installment, the annual budgets that the county submits to the state will be evaluated on an on-going basis, Erbisch said, noting that the county will monitor the caseload and other aspects related to the public defender’s office to assess where staff and/or funding may need to be focused.

Overall, Erbisch said, he feels the creation of the public defender’s office, while undoubtedly complex, will be a “positive thing” for all involved.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.