Former Metro Detroit Judge: Too Many Jailed Needlessly Because They Lack an Attorney

December 06, 2016, 9:16 AM

The author is a former 52nd District Court judge in Novi and a former assistant state attorney general.  He's chief financial officer of the Justice Speakers Institute.

By Brian MacKenzie

Ex-Judge Brian MacKenzie: "A good public defender system will save us all tax dollars."

Jennifer Myers could not pay $91.99 a month in child support. So she was arrested and when brought to court, where without an attorney, she was put in jail for 30 days. 

According to the coroner she died died in the Macomb County jail from a sepsis infection.

However, what she may have really died from was not having an attorney. If she had been provided an attorney, as the constitution requires when someone is facing incarceration, she might not have been jailed and her family wouldn’t be suing Macomb County.

While more dramatic, Jennifer’s story is not unique in Michigan. Not long ago Kyle Dewitt was arrested for fishing out of season. He was incarcerated without having an attorney representing him. Unfortunately, what happened to Kyle is all to common, a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said one third of misdemeanants who are incarcerated did not have an attorney. 

National Problem

According to the human rights watch, in the United States, 23 percent of people in jail are awaiting trial on minor crimes such as a suspended driver's license. 

In one county in Michigan, on a typical day about 25 percent of those incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses were there because they failed to pay their fines and costs. Most of them did not have an attorney when they were sent to jail. The Association of State correctional administrators in 2011 said it costs $93.65 per day to incarcerate someone in Michigan. 

Jailing a person for a minor offense can have very negative effects not just on them, but on their families and the taxpayers.

Being in jail can jeopardize a person’s employment  potentially destabilizing family finances and ultimately costing the taxpayers. Beyond the daily cost, there is a extremely significant ripple effect. 

People who are held in jail while awaiting trial are more likely to  pleaded guilty simply to get out of jail. Having a record makes it hard to get a job.  Moreover, being held in jail pending sentencing increases the the odds of receiving a jail sentence.  From a taxpayers standpoint, what is the point of putting someone like Stephen Papa a Iraq War veteran, who is homeless and could not get an attorney, in jail for going into an abandoned building.

Having an attorney for those charged with minor offenses at their first appearance in court can help ensure that they remain a  taxpaying member of  the community, and save the rest of us precious tax dollars.  However, a survey from the governor's office found only 7 percent of Michigan’s courts provided an attorney for people at their first appearance. Not only is this is a violation of a person's constitutional right to an attorney, it is simply to expensive for our state to allow to continue.

Shortsighted View

In the upcoming lame-duck session, the Michigan Legislature is considering a series of bills that would start to fix these problems. The main opposition comes from a shortsighted view that public defenders cost the taxpayers money.  While this might be true in a penny-wise pound-foolish sort of way, it misses the savings in jail costs that we are now paying.  

The evidence is clear: A good public defender system will save us tax dollars.

More importantly, a person who is not a threat to society or who is too poor to pay a fine, shouldn't go to jail.  Putting people in jail who don’t belong there, because they don’t have someone to advocate for them when they don’t know how, increases the likelihood that they will actually become criminals. 

Michigan’s jails are overcrowded and people like Kyle Dewitt, Stephen Papa and Jennifer Myers don’t don't belong in them. We need that space for the people who do belong there.

Call your legislator tell him or her to support bills that reform Michigan's public defender system.

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