'Holistic' Kalamazoo Defender's Office to Offer Legal & Life Guidance

Aug 21, 2019

On July 1st, things began looking up for Kalamazoo County residents who can't afford an attorney. Now, defendants can turn to a central office of 22 attorneys dedicated exclusively to such cases, and soon two social workers will be on staff to link clients with community resources so they can live healthier in hopes of preventing recidivism. The newly created Kalamazoo Defender is the first ever public defender's office in the county.

We are striving in every way possible to create more dignity in the process so that their interaction with our office is one that leaves them feeling more represented holistically than they might have in the prior system

Kalamazoo Defender Executive Director Joshua Hilgart says attorneys will practice in teams, and, as a result, can learn from each other and get mentoring from more senior attorneys. And because they are all housed under the same roof, they can more easily share motions and other information about cases to allow for improved legal defense for indigent defendants, officials say.

"We are striving in every way possible to create more diginity in the process so that their interaction with our office is one that leaves them feeling more represented holistically than they might have in the prior system," Hilgart says.

Here's how it worked in the past.

Interim Chief Public Defender Donna Innes and Kalamazoo Defender Executive Director Joshua Hilgart
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

According to Donna Innes, interim chief public defender for the Kalamazoo Defender's office, private attorneys negotiated individual contracts with funding units, such as counties. One huge problem, however, Innes says, was the "drastically inadequate" amount paid the attorneys. It hampered mounting an optimal criminal defense for clients, so finding investigators was difficult, for example, she says. And, defendants would not have legal representation at arraignments, where bail is set and pleas entered, also due to financial constraints.

Innes says it was also hard for attorneys to track their client's case under the old system.

"The information (was) all siloed," Innes says.

In Kalamazoo County each year, roughly 1,700 to 2,000 felony cases are filed. Of those cases, almost all of the defendants are indigent and so qualify for a court-appointed attorney, Innes says.  

Joshua Hilgart and Donna Innes, executive director and interim chief public defender, respectively, for the Kalamazoo Defender, talk about the need for their office in an interview airing Thursday, Aug. 22, on WMUK's WestSouthwest news and public affairs show.

The office, and other such efforts across Michigan to improve the quality of legal representation for the poor, results from a class action lawsuit the ACLU filed against the state of Michigan.

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission funds about three-quarters of the Kalamazoo Defender's $4.18 million budget with the balance coming from Kalamazoo County government

The case led to legislation creating the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, or MIDC, in 2013.

The commission funds about three-quarters of the Kalamazoo Defender's $4.18 million budget with the balance coming from Kalamazoo County government, according to Hilgart. 

Different than most public defender's offices in the United States, the Kalamazoo Defender has formed as a nonprofit agency, separate from any unit of government or court.

"Part of the reason (Kalamazoo County) went with a nonprofit is that the MIDC is going to issue standards shortly that is going to require independence from the county, the courts and the government, and this is probably going to require new policies and some kind of barrier between county governments and their county-based programs," Hilgart says. "Kalamazoo decided...to have a nonprofit bid for the job and, therefore, be independent from the start." 

The office is located on the third floor of the Comerica Buiding on South Rose Street in downtown Kalamazoo.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to an attorney in criminal cases.

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