Houghton County approves public defender plan

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette David Gemignani, who serves as public defender for Houghton County, talks to the county Board about a plan for creating a public defense office with additional defender.

HOUGHTON — Houghton County will submit a plan to the state for creating a public defender office, although it could be a while before anything takes effect.

The plan is required under standards set by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which was created after a report found all 83 counties in the state were deficient. Every county must submit a plan on how to comply to the commission by Nov. 20.

No plan would take effect until the state appropriates funds for the changes, said public defender David Gemignani.

No money has been appropriated from the state yet, said County Administrator Eric Forsberg.

The plan approved by Houghton County would move from the current contract system to create a tri-county public defenders office for Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties.

Baraga approved a plan Monday night.

Under the plan, a tri-county public defender’s office would be set up as a nonprofit corporation, with which the counties would partner.

“This is probably the most feasible thing to do,” Gemignani said. “There’s a lot of advantages to this. There’s continuity to this.”

Houghton County’s contribution would be capped at $162,298, as determined by a three-year average between 2010-12. The state would contribute funding for any amount exceeding more than that which would bring the courts up to state standards.

Each county would apply for a grant from the state for the other funds. Houghton County would receive an estimated $46,228 grant. Baraga County would get $94,426 and Keweenaw County would get $29,508, Gemignani said.

The proposed budget for the first year of the tri-county system is about $794,330, Gemignani said.

At least two new attorneys would be needed to meet the expected caseload, Gemignani said. The state’s caseload standards limit the number of cases on which an attorney can work.

“If you look at their standards, I’m way over just on felonies, way over on misdemeanors,” he said.

One idea looked at was Gemignani handling felony cases, while private attorneys handled misdemeanors. However, there was no interest from other attorneys in giving up their private practices.

“We’re going to have to get attorneys from out of the area, probably younger attorneys,” said Commissioner Scott Ala.

Ala called the plan “a great deal for the county.”

“It makes a lot of sense to have everything operating in one office,” he said.