Genesee County changes legal public defender program with new office

Published: Apr. 16, 2021 at 6:16 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Genesee County is changing the way attorneys are organized to represent suspects who can’t afford their own legal representation.

Anyone accused of a crime who can’t afford an attorney is assigned a public defender. Instead of hiring private defense attorneys through the court, Genesee County has created a Public Defender’s Office as required by recently passed criminal reform laws in Michigan.

The changes come with a new central headquarters for public defenders at the Genesee County Administration Building in downtown Flint. County commissioners hired a former judge to run the defender program.

“I kind of like to think I know what I’m doing,” said Nathaniel Perry, who recently retired as the longest serving judge in Genesee County District Court.

Perry worked as a prosecutor and public defender before being elected judge. He now is the chief public defender administrator for Genesee County.

“Every public defender in the county is under my jurisdiction you might say,” Perry said.

The county has about 50 defense attorneys on file who handle misdemeanor and felony cases for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. Public defenders work with suspects from their arraignment through the entire legal process until the case is closed.

“We’re guided by what the public does and whatever instances of trouble they get involved in,” Perry said.

Many of the 50 defense attorneys working in Genesee County courts have always done the work, but they were organized by the court administrator. Now they will work for Perry’s new office, which was established specifically better manage the legal defense process.

He made it clear no issues forced this change.

“The reform came about and said, well maybe we shouldn’t have this as part of the court because ... the judiciary needs to be in the business of setting bonds and dealing with motions, and not necessarily getting involved, or at least given the appearance that they were involved in the selection of attorneys,” Perry said.

As administrator, Perry will field complaints and oversee the work private public defenders do at the county’s expense. He hopes the new Public Defender’s Office will increase confidence in their work.

“It was exciting to know that I would be the person who was not only going to kick this program off, but then again being a department head and being an African-American department head. That was exciting for me,” Perry said.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic is making the office busy. Without the courts operating as usual, not many cases are closing right now and each of the 50 attorneys is handling about 30 cases apiece with more coming in every day.

The Public Defender’s Office received 43 new cases this week alone.

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