Standards for Defending the Poor Proposed

On Tuesday June 9, 2015, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission met and continued its work on the first set of proposed minimum standards for assigned counsel in Michigan.  Justin Hinkley of the Lansing State Journal reported that:

Jonathan Sacks, MIDC executive director, told commissioners meeting in downtown Lansing that he hoped to publish the standards within a couple of weeks. They will be posted on the commission’s new website, and in trade publications ahead of an Aug. 18 public hearing.

Read the full article on the Lansing State Journal’s website, and watch our standards page for the proposals and the process to send us feedback and comments before our next commission meeting.

MIDC Launches Website

June 1, 2015
Media Release

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission is pleased to announce the launch of their website, found at
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, and the office just opened this February.
The Act also requires that the MIDC publish its policies on its website, along with annual reports and its budget and expenditures. See MCL §780.989(h)(6) and §780.999 for more details. The MIDC presents the content on its website as part of these statutory requirements and to provide other relevant information to Internet users.
Executive Director Jonathan Sacks says that the MIDC is excited to begin meeting all of the mandates of the Act, adding:

“Our website is an important start to informing the criminal justice community and poor people charged with crimes about the steps we are taking to improve representation and to help ensure Michigan meets its constitutional obligations.”

In addition to the statutory requirements, the MIDC will post on its website news and noteworthy issues, information about meetings and upcoming events, and links to helpful resources. The site will also be used to post proposed minimum standards for indigent defense, dates of public hearings, compliance models and plans and the process for seeking grant funding after a plan is approved.
The MIDC’s logo and website were designed by the extraordinary team at Elefant Design/Strategy. Find out more about Elefant at
For questions, suggestions or concerns about the website contents, contact Marla McCowan, MIDC Director of Training, Outreach and Support, at or (517) 388-6702.

Gov. Snyder’s Special Message on Criminal Justice

Governor Rick Snyder delivered a special message on criminal justice at Goodwill Industries in Detroit that focused on reductions in spending money on prisons while maintaining public safety. Among his priorities, the Governor discussed the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission’s early work and the need for future funding of the agency:

“In 2013, I signed Public Acts 93 and 94, to create the permanent Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC). This legislation marked an important first step for reform so that Michigan may guarantee the constitutional right to counsel for low-income individuals facing criminal charges. The MIDC has started its work to collect data and establish minimum standards to regulate and make the state’s indigent criminal defense systems more efficient. As these standards are enacted, additional funding from the state will be needed in the form of grants administered by the MIDC so that courts may meet the standards and reform our indigent defense system to protect our communities, our tax dollars and the constitutional rights of all Michiganders. I look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure the ongoing success of the Commission’s efforts and I am excited to watch Michigan become the model for other states to follow.”

Read the Governor’s entire message and see related documents here.


May Outreach Message

View on Adobe slate

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) has been busy this spring, drafting proposed minimum standards, creating a survey for counties, and continuing to connect with indigent defense providers around the state. While there is much work to be done, progress has been made in terms of information gathering and laying the groundwork for improvements to indigent defense in Michigan.

The Commission met most recently on April 14, 2015 at the State Bar of Michigan board room in Lansing. David Carroll from the 6th Amendment Center was a special guest at the meeting. Mr. Carroll is a nationally recognized expert on indigent defense standards and structures. Mr. Carroll founded the 6th Amendment Center in 2012, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization to assist state and local governments meet the constitutional imperative to provide competent lawyers to the indigent accused. Mr. Carroll was the primary author of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s report on Michigan’s indigent defense services, “A Race to the Bottom – Speed & Savings over Due Process: A Constitutional Crisis,” and provided assistance to Governor Snyder’s Indigent Defense Advisory Committee. Mr. Carroll continues to work in an advisory capacity with the MIDC pursuant to a grant from the Department of Justice. He gave a presentation to the Commission about the history of the right to counsel and insights for moving forward in Michigan.

Executive Director Jonathan Sacks provided a report to the Commission about the work being done by staff. As part of his report, Mr. Sacks described the initial minimum standards that have been drafted for the Commission’s consideration. The MIDC Act sets forth the process for proposing minimum standards, which will involve a series of proposals over time. The first set of proposals cover the following areas: Education and Training of Defense Counsel; the Initial Client Interview; Investigation and Expert Witnesses; and Timing for Appointment of Counsel. The MIDC has Committees that are currently drafting and reviewing these four proposed standards. The Committees meet regularly and have MIDC staff liaisons assigned to each group for administrative and technical assistance.

It is estimated that the full Commission will review the work done by the Committees and discuss the proposed standards at the June 9, 2015 MIDC meeting in Lansing. Thereafter, the proposals will be distributed for comments by the criminal justice community before the public hearing, which is estimated to occur at the time of the August 18, 2015 MIDC meeting. The timeline is ambitious, but all of the Committees are working diligently. Information about attending the public hearing, which is open to the public, will be on the MIDC website,, which is set to launch later this spring.

The MIDC is also in the process of finalizing a survey to be distributed to all Circuit and District Courts in Michigan. The MIDC Act requires data collection from indigent defense providers. This first survey will help identify the types of delivery systems used in each county, factors used to determine eligibility for assigned counsel services, the timeframe for appointments of counsel and information about meetings with clients, training for assigned counsel, expenditures on indigent defense, and case tracking methodology. The survey will be distributed through the State Court Administrator’s Office and the responses will be analyzed this summer. A summary of the survey results will be made available to the public after it has been completed. The primary author of the survey is incoming MIDC Research Director Dr. Jonah Siegel, a sociologist with a specialty in criminal justice issues.

MIDC staff continues to connect with practitioners regularly. Jonathan Sacks spends time every week meeting with criminal defense attorneys, court administrators, and judges, widely seeking input for improving indigent defense services. Mr. Sacks also attended a train-the-trainer event for CDAM’s trial college at the end of April. As a career-public defender and former supervisor of public defenders, Mr. Sacks hopes to engage the newest group of indigent criminal defense attorneys in Michigan. Mr. Sacks was also recently appointed to the State Bar of Michigan’s “Modernizing the Regulatory Machinery” Committee of the 21st Century Task Force, dedicated to building economic resilience and capacity in the delivery of legal services.

Marla McCowan, the Director of Training, Outreach and Support, maintains her position on the Wayne County Criminal Advocacy Program Board of Directors, a program delivering mandatory training to one of the largest assigned-counsel rosters in Michigan. Ms. McCowan also continues in her position on the Education Committee for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, and was elected to the CDAM Board of Directors this spring. Ms. McCowan was also recently appointed to the State Bar of Michigan’s “Building a 21st Century Practice” Committee of the 21st Century Task Force, working toward developing and maintaining professional excellence in a dynamic marketplace.

State Office Administrator and Legislative Director Marcela Westrate was appointed to the State Bar of Michigan “Affordability of Legal Services” Committee of the 21st Century Task Force, working on new tools for breaking through the access barrier. She will participate in training later this spring to ensure MIDC is in full compliance with the document retention policy and the Freedom of Information Act. Transparency and accountability remain at the core of facilitating the MIDC mission.



Are all Americans treated equally in court?

Executive Director Jonathan Sacks sits down in a televised interview with Commissioner David Schuringa and discusses the fact that the right to a fair trial should be available to everyone, regardless of their economic status. Mr. Sacks addresses the ways that the current defense system is failing and how the commission plans to enact improvement. Watch the entire interview here.


Draft Minutes – April, MIDC Meeting

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission met on April 14, 2015 and the minutes were approved at the June 9, 2015 meeting.

MIDC Minutes 4-14-15

April Outreach Message

View on Adobe slate.

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. 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.

Indigent Defense Commission gears up to help courts meet constitutional obligation

MIDC Chair Judge James Fisher describes the function of the commission and the work ahead in a detailed interview with the Legal News: “All the county courts will be able to shape their delivery system their own way, but they’ll have to meet state standards. Everyone on the Advisory Commission thought that would be the better approach as opposed to having a centrally run system in Lansing dictating what the courts would do,” said James Fisher, who is of counsel with Law Weathers. Read the in depth interview here.

Jonathan Sacks named Executive Director

Effective February 2, 2015, Jonathan Sacks is the first Executive Director of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. “Mr. Sacks brings an impressive mix of administrative leadership, legal knowledge and field experience to the commission,” said MIDC Chairperson Judge James Fisher. “He will provide aggressive leadership as we establish standards, systems and policies that address the challenges that have plagued Michigan’s indigent defense system for decades.” For the full article in the Legal News, click here.