The New Saginaw Public Defenders Office

Securing the Foundation of Legal Representation

Posted In: Politics, State, Local, News, Local, State,   From Issue 883   By: Robert E Martin

08th August, 2019     0

The newly formed Saginaw Defenders Office, which is now located at 803 Court Street, sits in a stately mid-Victorian house on the corner of Court & Webster that for close to a hundred years has carried a destiny for serving the legal needs of the community wherein it resides. 

Formerly the home of the law firm of Martin & Martin, which was purchased in 1955 by my late uncle Walter Martin - and where my late father, Fred Martin, Jr. and uncle Harold Martin practiced law throughout the duration of their careers - originally the structure was built as the home of a prominent probate judge in the city.

Complete with stained glass windows, an old hitching post and concrete block at the curb, in the early 1940s it was possessed by the U.S. Government and converted into a 4-apartment building. When the Martin brothers acquired the building as the home of their new firm, one of the compelling reasons was its location on a main artery of the city, just a couple blocks from the County Court House.  Remodeling the home themselves, sans an architect, they invited bids for brick & stone work, plumbing, heating, electrical and plastering; and from 1955 through 1956 would practice law from nine to five and then dash home and into overalls to work at 803 Court remodeling it until one in the morning.

And now today - the romantic grandeur of that beautiful building serves as both a bane and a fitting bridge for servicing the legal needs of the dispossessed as the home of the newly formed Public Defenders Office.

Attorney Steve Fenner worked for many years in the Saginaw County Prosecutors office until assuming his latest role heading up this newly formed entity.  According to Steve the genesis of the Public Defenders Office began approximately 10-years ago by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, who conducted studies around the state in order to determine what counties were doing to provide legal counsel for indigent defendants, discovering that this constitutionally guaranteed mandate was being grossly under-funded.

“Representatives in the Michigan legislature realized that indigent people were being grossly under-represented because the monies for legal defense allocated by various counties was so low it became difficult to get attorneys to handle these cases,” he explains. “Saginaw County was only allocating something like $800,000 per year for indigent defense, which is nowhere near being adequate, so a coalition of bi-partisan legislators came together and by statute got a Republican legislature and governor to establish the MIDC as a permanent board.”

“The actual allocations received were $83-million dollars last year and each county throughout the state was required to do a compliance plan in order to meet the following standards,” he continues. “First, each client must be represented by counsel at every first arraignment, which has proven to be time-consuming and difficult but necessary, as people appearing in district court for their arraignments were routinely getting hit with $250-$300 finds and fees, pleading guilty to cases they had no business pleading guilty to simply to get it over with. Plus, this would often put two or three misdemeanor crimes on their record, so one of the duties we are charged with is to represent everybody at their first arraignment.”

Presently the Public Defender’s Office is handling 25% of the court-appointed cases and the other 75% are being distributed among other appointed counsels comprised of attorneys who sign-up and volunteer to handle these cases. According to Fenner, “One of the standards set is that each attorney handling these cases must do a minimum of 12-hours continuing legal education per year; and it’s disheartening for me to see the lack of participation of people on this list right now.”

Twenty years ago numerous attorneys from the Saginaw County Bar Association would place their name on this list volunteering to handle pro-bono defense work at reduced levels of compensation, but in recent years the number of attorneys on that list has dropped dramatically. “Many of them are getting older and frankly, the compensation just wasn’t there,” comments Steve. “Judges had the ability on top of that to cut the bills submitted by these attorneys to a pittance, many often being cut by as much as 30%. Attorneys were handling major felony cases and only receiving a couple hundred bucks for their work. You can’t even maintain an office that way.”

The way the office is now set up each county in the state must maintain their annual allocation, so Saginaw County must continue to contribute $800,000 each year to the Public Defenders’ Office, but the State of Michigan is also contributing $83-million each year, which is allocated to all the counties within the State of Michigan.   The total amount allocated for the Saginaw County office is just under $2-million dollars per year, although according to Fenner, much of this funding for the current year had to go into infrastructure and getting their new offices at 803 Court Street properly set up.

“The bill for setting up our Internet and Cabling for computer purposes was $23,000 all by itself; and because this building is so old, we had two different contractors come in that threw up their hands at the project,” notes Steve. “One of them attempted to drill through 23-inches of concrete and never broke through, but he did break his drill bit and through up his hands and said, ‘I’m outta here’. The last contracting firm we got succeeded in drilling through all floors just to get the wiring in, but we should be completely wireless within the next few years.”

The newly formed Public Defenders Office is authorized to have ten staff attorneys on staff. “The composition of the staff is based upon a figure going around that an attorney should have no more than 150 criminal cases in a year,” notes Fenner. “Surprisingly, nobody knows where that figure came from; and two-and-a-half misdemeanor cases equal one felony case; so based on this that would amount to nine lawyers in the office.  However, because we’ve found that first appearance arraignments have been more time-intensive, we’re authorized to have 10 attorneys and 2 spots are currently open, although we have job offers pending right now.”

When asked about the advantages and disadvantages of this new office, Steve states the biggest advantage is not being beholden to anybody.

“We are now independent and nobody can cut any of our bills,” he states. “We are being paid directly by the State of Michigan in quarterly allocations and clearly, having funds to hire competent people that have time to put into their cases increases the caliber of service. As much as I don’t like these first appearances, they’ve had a major affect already. People are more relaxed as opposed to being scared to death. When we set cases for pre-trial we have a chance to talk to the Prosecutors Office and get some of these charges knocked down, so the funding is a big boost. The disadvantage is fighting against an old entrenched system. Certain judges adopt an attitude of ‘this is the way I’ve always done things’ and are resistant to change.”

Although the Public Defenders Office has only been operational for four months now, Fenner says they’ve taken on about 300 cases thus far. And in terms of how his $2-million per year budget for defending indigent clients compares to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ office, Fenner says he believes they have $8-million allocated per year. “We operate on a quarter of the resources allocated to the Prosecutors office, however do not have the levels of investigation to tend as they do.”

When asked if his office has sufficient investigative resources, Fenner says it looks like they do. “There’s a separate line item for investigators and we are free to engage their services, he notes. “Investigators are paid $50 per hour and right now any licensed private investigator can be on that list. It looks like some of the police agencies are at a low-point in terms of investigators and a lot of the experienced investigators often suddenly leave the office or retire.”

How does how office handle potential conflicts with multi-defendant cases - are outside lawyers capped in terms of compensation?  “They are paid by an hourly rate and have to be on the assigned counsel list, but one of the things I was surprised to find is that the Case Management System currently used does not allow you to determine how many multi-defendant cases there are, which literally dumbfounds me. The system used over the last 20 years cannot give us any printout on that, so we are making our own records right now.  That Case Management System is under review and there’s been talk about changing it this summer or fall. They are old systems but very cheap and some courts would like to keep it.  It does what it does but cannot be modified at all.”

Is the Public Defenders’ Office able to handle bond modification hearings for people stuck in jail awaiting trial; and can they help victims with petty forfeitures or handle any expungencies for marijuana possession? 

“Absolutely,” states Fenner. “At the first arraignment the primary thing is to get a bond set on personal recognizance or low enough for the client to post it, so we’re constantly trying to get the courts to modify those bonds.  GPS monitors are not necessarily that cheap, but an alternative that judges seem receptive to.  As for expungencies we haven’t been presented with that yet, but are certainly willing to tackle it. There’s been talk of legislation to automatically expunge marijuana convictions and it should be done.”

In terms of the biggest challenge encountered thus far with establishing the new Public Defenders Office, Steven references the historic and romantic old building at 803 Court Street that now houses his office, coupled with the difficulty in finding competent young attorneys willing to handle defense work for indigent clients.

“My expectation was that the building would be in shape when we moved in and finding out that it wasn’t and just getting our internet system set up has been difficult.  I thought that would be done by the first of May and the wiring and cabling to the server downstairs was only completed a week ago.”

“There’s also talk about the fact we may have to assume a higher level of case load and I hope that’s not true, because the list of outside attorneys willing to handle indigent defense work is going down. Many are getting older and we’re starting to suffer by attrition, retirement, and people dying. We just don’t have that influx of young people coming in here to fill the ranks, so to speak.  I was told getting people to come into this office would be easy, but I didn’t believe that because people by nature don’t want to move from where they are.  If you’re a Detroit lawyer you’re probably going to stay in that area, no matter how much Saginaw offers.  If you’re a Midland person or a Bay City person, most likely you will stay in your area.”

“It is a great opportunity, however, because the average salary for attorneys in this office is at least $60,000 per year, but of the $2-million we are allocated each year, rent for this building is set at $60,000 for the first year and that goes up 5% the next fiscal year and 7% thereafter. Each attorney kicks in $6,000 that comes out of that quarterly draw. Plus, no money is allocated for electricity and heating so that also needs to come out of our allocation; and there was no security system in this building, so we had to get bids and do that from scratch.”

Attorney James Piazza has specialized in criminal defense work for 40 years now and formerly had his office at 803 Court St., only to move and then return once the new Public Defenders Office was established. As part of the legal team involved in the new office, he sees a definite advantage with the new direction and opportunities opened by this new entity.

“A lot of Public Defender offices do not have a good reputation,” he states. “We want to establish a solid reputation so that each client is able to say they have a good lawyer.  In some counties you hear clients say, “I don’t want a public defender - I want a ‘real’ lawyer.’  And we want to get over that image. We want to get good people into this office from the start and train them properly.”

The new Public Defenders office is a much needed and welcomed addition to the fabric of our community.  It’s importance is perhaps summarized by these words from two important figures of American jurisprudence.

As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren once wrote: “Life and liberty can be as much endangered from illegal methods used to convict those thought to be criminals as from the actual criminals themselves.”

And as attorney Clarence Darrow once put it: “There is no such thing as justice - in or out of court. You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom.









Please login to comment



Current Issue


Don't have an account?