The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission April 2015

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) was created by legislation in 2013 after an advisory commission recommended improvements to the state’s legal system. The MIDC will work to ensure the state’s public defense system is fair, cost-effective and constitutional while simultaneously protecting public safety and accountability. Governor Snyder made appointments to the 15-member commission in the summer of 2014. Jonathan Sacks was selected as the agency’s founding executive director, and he began his work in early February of 2015.

Jonathan came to the commission from the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, where he served as Deputy Director. His past achievements include the establishment of units to support indigent clients through evidence reviews involving the now closed Detroit Crime Lab, investigation of possible wrongful convictions, and social worker mitigation and reentry support. Prior to his work in Michigan, Jonathan was a felony trial supervisor and major trials unit attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. His experience and accomplishments are enhanced by his energy and commitment to improving Michigan’s system.

Jonathan’s earliest days of work have been busy. He has been meeting individually with every member of the commission, reaching out to some of the established public defender offices in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, appearing before legislators to describe his agency’s needs, and learning about how partners in the criminal justice community believe the system needs to improve. Jonathan hired Marcela Westrate – long since involved in the movement with the Campaign for Justice – as his State Office Administrator and Legislative Director. He also hired Marla McCowan as the Director of Training, Outreach and Support – building on her role as the former Manager of the Criminal Defense Resource Center and Training Director at the State Appellate Defender Office with more than 16 years of experience as a public defender at the appellate level in Michigan. Jonah Siegel will join as a Research Director in the fall of 2015 to oversee data analysis collected from a comprehensive survey to be conducted of indigent defense delivery systems statewide.

Jonathan's office in downtown Lansing.

We are working in temporary office space on the fourth floor of the Capitol National Bank, right in downtown Lansing at the corner of Washington and Ottawa. We are steps from the Capitol and walking distance to many other offices in the area. We will obtain a permanent space on the third floor of the building later this summer.

The legislation creating the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission has many components and in the coming months will be working on establishing the framework for achieving all that is required by the Act. The team assembled so far has begun where most great institutions begin: by crafting a mission statement to guide us as we work toward our goals:

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission shall develop and oversee the implementation, enforcement, and modification of minimum standards, rules, and procedures to ensure that indigent criminal defense services providing effective assistance of counsel are delivered to all indigent adults in this state consistent with the safeguards of the United States constitution, the state constitution of 1963, and with the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission Act. We will identify and encourage best practices for delivering the effective assistance of counsel to indigent defendants charged with crimes. We will collect data, support compliance and administer grants to achieve these goals. We will accomplish our mission through collaboration, transparency and accessibility to all partners in the criminal justice community.

Creating and implementing statewide standards for indigent defense is an enormous job, and something we are extremely well suited to do. We want all members of the criminal justice community to look to us for both leadership and support as we navigate toward making Michigan a model for indigent defense delivery systems nationwide. In that spirit, we have chosen a lighthouse as our logo, and we will provide guidance for improving indigent defense in Michigan.

Later this spring we will launch our new website, one of the requirements of the Michigan Indigent Defense Act. There you will be able to find out information about our Commissioners, our projects, our reports and our upcoming events. In the meantime, we are interested in your thoughts and ideas and we appreciate your patience as we finalize our team and get to work on introducing standards and best practices statewide.

Contact: Marla McCowan at (517) 388-6702 or mmccowanidc@gmail.com

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Marla McCowan
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Photographs by M. McCowan. Our logo is by Elefant / Design & Strategy, find them at www.designelefant.com

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