Kalamazoo County has signed a contract to set up a new, independent office that will represent criminal suspects who can't afford an attorney.
Kalamazoo County Commission Chairwoman Julie Rogers says the move caps 25 years of work on the issue. The nonprofit Kalamazoo Defender will hire 23 attorneys and a social worker to help indigent defendants and their families.
Rogers says, “The difficulty we’ve had in the past was frankly a lack of funding. So it fell to counties to fully fund indigent offense, which means if someone did not have the financial means to hire their own legal representation, it would fall to the county to provide that.”
The state issued new, tougher guidelines on indigent defense in 2017. That followed a lawsuit four years earlier.
Josh Hilgart is Kalamazoo Defender’s executive director. He says it will handle cases with a holistic model that's the first of its kind in Michigan. Hilgart says attorneys will treat the whole client, taking into account factors like race and socio-economic status.
“In addition to giving them top-notch criminal defense representation, which is their constitutional right, we would also try to make them feel as if they’ve got someone in their corner, on these myriad of collateral issues,” Hilgart says.
Hilgart and Rogers agree that Kalamazoo County will be the first in the state to employ this holistic model on a large scale.
“Kalamazoo Defender exists to be 'the people’s law firm' in criminal defense,” Hilgart says. “We are there for the community from which the indigent defendants’ come, to provide them a voice in the criminal justice system, to not only provide them with the best criminal defense possible, but with an advocate for all the collateral needs that come with criminal prosecution, and to make them feel like they have someone in their corner.”
Rogers says the need was clear. She says 90-percent of the roughly 3,000 criminal cases in Kalamazoo County every year involve people too poor to hire a lawyer.
“I think it’s really exciting to be able to do this because of the state funding. Right now it’s a state-county partnership, so some of the funding is still coming from Kalamazoo County through the taxes we collect, and some of it is from the state,” Rogers says. “We’re hoping that we can continue that partnership for many years to come.”
Hilgart says Kalamazoo Defender will begin taking cases in the summer of 2019.