WSW Podcast: Kalamazoo Defender's Office Brings Novel Approach to Public Defending

Aug 22, 2019

Credit WMUK

A longtime effort to bring a public defender's office to Kalamazoo County has succeeded. The nonprofit entity called Kalamazoo Defender opened for business on July 1 to work with income-challenged defendants. The Sixth Amendment guarantees Americans legal representation in criminal cases.


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

Officials say the Kalamazoo Defender differs from traditional public defender programs in several ways. Firstly, it is a nonprofit. Secondly, it'll have social workers to help defendants connect with community resources to promote healthier life choices. Two social workers are expected to be hired this fall.

Kalamazoo Defender Executive Director Joshua Hilgart says his office's 22 attorneys will practice in teams. As part of that collaborative approach, they will share motions and other information about clients, which he believes will lead to improved defense for indigent defendants.

Defendants with limited means were represented by private attorneys in the past. Each attorney contracted with a funding unit, such as a county, according to Donna Innes, interim chief public defender for the Kalamazoo Defender's office.

Credit Courtesy photo | Kalamazoo Defender

However, she says, the amount paid them was "drastically inadequate" which hampered their ability to hire investigators, for example, and it was hard to "track what was going on in a centralized way" with their client's cases because the information was "all siloed."

Innes sees the Kalamazoo Defender's office enhancing information tracking.

"A collaborative approach is certainly much better for that," she says.

Joshua Hilgart and Donna Innes, executive director and interim chief public defender, respectively, for the Kalamazoo Defender, talk about the importance of their office in an interview today 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.

Hear the shorter, aired interview here.

WestSouthwest is produced by WMUK, the public radio station licensed to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. It airs Mondays & Thursdays at 7:34 a.m., 9:34 a.m. & 4:20 p.m. You can subscribe to the WestSouthwest podcast through Apple podcasts and Google Music. There you can leave a rating and write a review.