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Trials and tribulations of court-appointed attorneys in Michigan

Max Johnston
Interlochen Public Radio
Jason Razavi does court-appointed work in Grand Traverse County

Court-appointed attorneys defend people who can’t pay for a lawyer of their own, but the state didn’t give those attorneys a fair shot to defend their clients, according to the ACLU.

That means more convictions and harsher sentences that could have been avoided, says the ACLU. More state funding and training for those lawyers is meant to balance the scales.

(Editor's note: We recommend you listen to the story before reading.)

One will be appointed for you at no cost

Every morning, several court-appointed attorneys meet with clients about to be arraigned at the 86th District Courthouse in Traverse City. Court-appointed lawyer Jason Razavi represents those that can't afford an attorney of their own.  

"The job is rewarding," Razavi says. "You're helping somebody out that is in a tough space."

But it's not easy. According to a report from the ACLU, court-appointed attorneys in Michigan were underpaid, exhausted from huge caseloads and ill-equipped to go against prosecutors.

Underpaid and overworked

David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, says the deck was stacked against defendants with court-appointed lawyers in Michigan.

"You may get a lawyer in name only, because that person has so many cases or has financial conflicts of interest. It’s as if you’re going into court with no lawyer at all," Carroll says.

According to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Michigan spent $7.35 per capita on court-appointed defense, which is 38 percent less than the national average.

And Carroll says court-appointed lawyers didn’t have the same resources as the prosecutors they were going up against.

"Knowing that a public defender has to do all the investigative stuff themselves, where a prosecutor has all of law enforcement at their disposal," Carroll says.

Fixing a broken system

In 2013, the state created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. The commission comes up with county standards for court-appointed attorneys. Now the state pays for more training and staff to help with cases.

Standard 1: Education and Training of Defense Counsel Defense counsel is required to attend continuing legal education relevant to counsel’s indigent defense clients. Standard 2: Initial Interview Defense counsel is provided sufficient time and a space where attorney-client confidentiality is safeguarded for meetings with defense counsel’s client. Standard 3: Investigation and Experts Counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary. Standard 4: Counsel at First Appearance and Other Critical Stages All adults, except those appearing with retained counsel or those who have made an informed waiver of counsel, shall be screened for eligibility under this act, and counsel shall be assigned as soon as an indigent adult is determined to be eligible for indigent criminal defense services.

Yet those attorneys have to do more too. Court-appointed lawyers have to meet with their clients early in the process and appear at all critical stages of their defense.

Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
The 86th District Courthouse in Traverse City.

Changes are on trial

Court-appointed lawyer Kyle Trevas isn't thrilled about some of the changes.

"I didn’t really see them as helping me help my clients more. I saw them as ‘let’s just make some rules so it looks like we’re doing something,'" Trevas says.

Trevas does court-appointed work for courthouses in three counties. The new standards require him show up at court earlier and more often, he says. One standard requires court-appointed lawyers to meet clients within 72 hours of getting a case. Trevas says that's a burden for attorneys like himself that work in multiple counties.

"I just didn’t like the idea that my standard had become perfection in a system that just isn’t perfect," Trevas says.

Plenty of lawyers are butting heads with the state over these changes, and the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission has been sued over whether or not they’re constitutional.

There's also concerns about if the work will remain funded. Counties implement the reforms and the state reimburses them for it.

Stakeholders like Trevas hope the state keeps funding it, but they’re not holding their breath.

"A lot of the county-level people are just waiting for the other shoe to drop on this," Trevas says.

In the meantime, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is expected to ratify four more standards for court-appointed attorneys in the next year.

This story was featured in Points North, you can find the full episode here.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.