The new public defender

Becky Vargo • Feb 19, 2019 at 12:00 PM

The new Ottawa County Office of the Public Defender has already taken about 55 percent of the new cases for indigent defendants since the first of the year. 

By the end of the month, that number should be close to 100 percent, according to the county’s chief public defender, Bob Hamilton.

Defendants who can’t afford attorney fees are considered indigent, Hamilton said. There are also some people who can afford to pay some money, but still not at the level of a private attorney, that also will be represented by the public defender’s office.

A public defense attorney is normally appointed at arraignment in district court.

Hamilton, 63, was already immersed in criminal defense work, with 80 percent of his load coming from Ottawa County appointments.

“Ottawa County has never had an official public defender’s office,” the Holland man said.

Indigent Defense Act created

In 1967, the county developed a system of appointing a roster of attorneys for the court-appointed work. The attorneys were paid an hourly rate — currently $75 or $85, depending on experience.

Although this has been one of the highest rates in the state, the cost per case has actually been lower because the attorneys bill only for time spent on a case. Other counties might pay a lump sum for a time period, Hamilton explained.

Hamilton said the system has worked well for Ottawa County defendants, but that was not necessarily the case elsewhere in Michigan.

Ten years ago, the National Association of Public Defenders commissioned a study to see how Michigan was doing in supplying attorneys to defendants. The study found the state lacking in providing attorneys for indigent persons, Hamilton said.

Five years ago, the state Legislature passed the Michigan Indigent Defense Act, which created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. The counties then had to come up with a plan for compliance of standards created by the commission. At that point, state funds would be supplied to help the county with its plan. 

“Ottawa County was one of the first counties to have a plan approved and one of the first to get up and running statewide,” Hamilton said.

The county decided to create a public defender office, while other counties are going with an administrator or other arrangements.

Kent County has a nonprofit organization called the Office of the Defender. Muskegon County organized a Public Defender Office three years ago.

Ottawa County office

Hamilton was hired when Ottawa County received its first payment from the state in November 2018. Since that time, he has been busy hiring staff, and setting up office space and procedures.

Ottawa County’s budget for the Office of the Public Defender is about $2.8 million for one year, Hamilton said. Based on historical annual figures for public defense, the county is providing about $960,000 of the budgeted amount. The rest is coming from the state.

Assistant public defenders will receive a salary between $61,000 and $100,000 — again, depending on experience.

“Ottawa County structured it to be roughly parallel to what the prosecuting attorneys make,” Hamilton said.

The Office of the Public Defender will have 15 attorneys, including Hamilton, and five office staff, split between the two offices in Holland and Grand Haven. Hamilton and an office administrator will split time between the two locations. Two legal assistants will be assigned to each location.

Both offices are within Department of Human Services buildings. The Grand Haven office is at 1111 Fulton Ave. (northeast corner of Fulton and Ferry). The Holland office is at 12185 James St., Suite 170.

“Interestingly enough, a lot of our clients have mental health issues, so this might be convenient,” Hamilton said. 

The new office is a good thing for everybody involved, particularly for the clients, Hamilton said, and that means it will be good for the county, as well.

“Ottawa County had a good system before,” he said. “It will be even better now, because the attorneys can dedicate their entire time to criminal defense — in effect becoming specialists. It’s going to be a better environment for the attorneys to practice in. It’s nice to be surrounded by allies who are doing the same job you are.” 

Attorneys hired

The Grand Haven office has room for 10 attorneys. There is one large and one small conference room, as well as a document preparation station and a lunchroom.

Hamilton said he expects six or seven attorneys to be stationed at the Grand Haven office. Attorneys from the Holland office will be able to use the open offices when they have work to do in Grand Haven.

Some familiar faces will remain with the Office of the Public Defender, including Phil Sielski and Nichole Derks, who are the first assistant public defenders. 

Assistant public defenders hired so far are: Anna White, Eduardo Velazquez, Abraham Gonzales, Ryan Seale, Brandon Barthelemy, Laura Helderop, Christopher Langholz and Matthew Hall.

Hamilton said he still has four attorney slots to fill.

More focused

The attorneys will now be concentrating on the criminal cases and not worrying about other work like divorce cases or how to deal with running an office.

There are also standards required by the Michigan Indigent Defense Act.

“If a person is locked up, we are required to visit them in jail within three days,” Hamilton said. “Before, it could be two weeks.”

There will also be “vertical representation.” The same attorney will represent the same defendant all the way through the system (after initial arraignment), Hamilton explained. And even if another attorney has to fill in at some point, all of the attorneys are working out of the same file system.

Defense attorneys will also be present at the jail for video arraignments, Hamilton said. Eventually, the attorneys will be in the district court for arraignments.

Hamilton said he will be primarily overseeing the office and the attorneys, and likely will not be doing much of the defense work.

“I want to make sure my staff have good support, great ways of dealing with the stress and ways of working through things when they get out of court,” he said. “It’s exciting to me. It’s going to be a group think.”

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