Due process of law and the right to a fair trial are key indicators of a functioning democracy. The U.S. Constitution specifically guarantees “assistance of counsel” for every defendant. Yet this right is not always guaranteed, even in the state of Michigan. Some people are wrongly convicted and incarcerated because they can’t afford skilled legal advice or a certain county is unable to provide representation due to a lack of funding. Citizens being denied the right to a fair trial because of inadequate resources is an unacceptable reality. On Thursday, the Michigan House of Representatives — with bipartisan support — passed a bill that would create a new system to oversee proper legal representation for low-income defendants. This is a positive step toward ensuring all citizens, regardless of their financial status, receive a qualified attorney and a fair trial.
Michigan has been widely criticized for an inadequate job of assignment of legal counsel. Much of the criticism is due to the decentralized process of assigning lawyers to those who cannot afford their own. House Bill 5804 proposes centralizing the process, creating a 14-member Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. This commission will be responsible for overseeing the appointment and performance of lawyers representing low-income defendants.
Reports show that 45 of 83 Michigan counties are spending below the state average of $7.83 per resident for indigent defense. As a result, innocent people may have a greater chance of incarceration simply because their county can’t spend enough money to provide them appropriate defense. The commission would seek to level the playing field between public defenders and prosecutors, while providing good attorneys for low-income defendants.
Since counties are struggling to correctly appropriate funds on their own, this commission would better the system and provide defendants with a fair trial. Without proper legal defense, it’s quite possible that innocent individuals are being incarcerated. This does not line up with the justice system that our founding fathers had in mind.
This commission will ensure proper spending to send the guilty to jail, while providing satisfactory defense for all. It will also save taxpayer money in the long run, as it is more costly to fund incarceration of innocent individuals than to pay for a competent representative to begin with. Each year, the costs and fees associated with incarceration of one person is $35,000. Even providing each low-income individual with a well-paid and qualified lawyer would not match the price of incarcerating innocent individuals. This money can be used elsewhere in our struggling state.
As citizens, and as human beings, we have the moral obligation to do anything possible to ensure that innocent people are not wrongly convicted. This commission takes a positive step toward making this horrifying scenario less likely to occur. All people deserve a fair trial with proper legal representation, so if counties can’t provide a fair trial, it is the state’s responsibility to rectify the practice.