HURON COUNTY (WJRT) - (10/27/16) - Near the tip of Michigan's Thumb a small Huron County courtroom is brewing something that could change the way people are defended around the state.
"In the vast majority of cases most criminal defendants do not have the financial ability to hire a lawyer. They're often nervous, anxious," said Judge David Herrington of the Huron County District Court.
Those defendants are known by definition as indigent.
"That could be anyone who is anywhere from homeless to a working person that just doesn't have enough money," said Herrington
In 2013, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission was formed to help improve the legal system for people who fall into this category. It has since released standards to help; one of which is to provide counsel at a defendant's very first court appearance...instead of after they're charged.
As of today it's not a state requirement but in August, Judge Herrington's courtroom became host to the first county-wide program of its kind to put this standard into place...and the MIDC is watching.
"(It could be) a possible model for other rural counties in Michigan."
Local attorney Walt Salens is one of six court-appointed attorneys who rotate meeting with defendants.
"We'll explain to them the process that they're going to be going through, what's going to happen today at their arraignment and what will happen in the future," said Salens.
Not only does it relax defendants, but Salens says it also allows them to start building their defense early on. The new program is also having a somewhat unexpected impact on the court as a whole.
"About 25-27 percent of the cases are being disposed of or resolved pre-arraignment," said Judge Herrington.
Many of those are common cases, but fewer hearings means saving money; an added bonus of a program that's giving everyone who walks into the Huron County District Court the same opportunities regardless of how much money they have.
"This is a good process, it's a good thing and we think it's the right thing to do," said the judge.
There's legislation moving through Lansing that if passed in the next couple months could put programs like the one in Huron County in courtrooms across the state within the year.