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Wayne County finalizes contract with Neighborhood Defender Service to bolster public defense office

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, June 13, 2019

Wayne County finalizes contract with Neighborhood Defender Service to bolster public defense office for most vulnerable residents

Goal is holistic approach based on national best practices to ensure quality legal services

DETROIT - Today, Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans and Rick Jones, the Executive Director of Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) signed a contract authorizing NDS to operate a public defender office in Detroit that will bolster legal representation for the county's most vulnerable residents. Under the contract, NDS will handle approximately 4,000 to 5,000 adult felony cases per year.

"Everyone has a right to quality representation no matter their financial means, it's a cornerstone of our democracy," said Evans. "We see this as a critical step to ensuring we have a public defender office based on nationwide best practices that ensures all people navigating the criminal justice system receive quality representation. We wanted a partner who could provide a holistic approach with a proven track record, and that's what NDS brings to Wayne County."

The office will be funded by nearly $8 million provided by a larger $17 million state-funded grant from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC). The deal was signed after the Wayne County Commission approved the contract on Thursday, June 6.

"This will double the number of attorneys in the public defender office, but they will be handling the same amount of cases," said James Heath, Corporation Counsel for Wayne County. "This translates to more time training and services for each individual case. It will also enable the same attorney to appear at all critical points for the client, instead of attorneys standing in for each other when they might not be as familiar with the facts of the case."

Under Evans' leadership, Wayne County commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center in 2017 to examine Wayne County's public defender office. The report, funded by a state grant, concluded that chronically stagnant state funding and increased caseloads were leading to deficiencies in legal services that could jeopardize the right to counsel. With additional state resources available via the $17 million MIDC grant, Wayne County issued a request for proposals in September of 2018 for operation of the public defender office.

"Our goal has always been the best possible indigent defense. Unfortunately as a society our investment has fallen well short of funding that goal," Evans said. "I applaud the MIDC and the state for putting more resources behind this effort and look forward to what NDS can do to ensure our criminal justice system serves everyone fairly."

NDS Detroit will open its doors this fall and provide holistic criminal defense services in 25% of Wayne County Circuit Court cases. It will use an award-winning national model focused on providing the best possible legal representation to indigent criminal defendants. For more than 25 years, NDS of Harlem has provided criminal, civil and family legal services to the people of Upper Manhattan. Its model incorporates innovative client-centered defense designed to improve social and legal outcomes that extend beyond the courtroom. In 2018, NDS received the "Defender of Justice Award" from the National Association of Public Defense.

"The people of Wayne County have a right to quality representation, and we are honored to bring it to them," said NDS Executive Director Rick Jones, who was born in Wayne County and spent his formative years in Detroit. "We know what it means to work in communities negatively impacted by mass incarceration and will endeavor to provide our clients, their families and their communities with a level of service that keeps them safe and intact."

NDS provides a holistic public defense. Clients benefit from the services of entire teams that can confront a myriad of legal issues, in addition to defense of a criminal prosecution. Teams consist of lawyers, social workers, advocates, administrators, and investigators, all of whom take time to understand clients as people and meet their legal and social needs.

This approach allows the defense to extend well beyond the courtroom: when clients face consequences with employment, schooling, immigration or in family or housing court, NDS works alongside them to resolve these issues. NDS Detroit will seek to partner with foundations and other private funding sources to expand beyond criminal defense and provide these holistic services in Wayne County.

"Neighborhood Defender Service is a nationally recognized leader in providing premier representation for indigent defendants," said Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell. "It is critical that the indigent population receives first-class representation and I am confident this agreement will provide exceptional service to indigent defendants from all of our communities."

The full Sixth Amendment Center report on the right to counsel in Wayne County is available online at http://sixthamendment.org/wayne-county-report/.

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