By Ryan Lewis
Chad Catalino of Grand Haven has been named new Allegan/Van Buren Counties’ Public Defender. He will oversee newly-created Allegan- and Paw Paw-based offices employing eight staff, including two public defense lawyers.
The office, a new state mandate, will be funded by Michigan and the counties at $2,217,515 and $529,260 for the first year.
Catalino brings 16 years of experience in public defense. He earned and undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State University and Juris Doctorate degree from Michigan State University.
He previously served as Division Director for the Muskegon County Public Defenders Office.
Catalino told Allegan County Commissioners March 28 he will work tirelessly to protect citizens’ rights while setting the office out as statewide example for ethical, innovative, collaborative and holistic representation of all people.”
He planned to start setting up the Allegan office April 8 and hopes to have it staffed within 60 days.
“I’m already working on partnerships with local universities to get interns and social workers involved as quickly as we can,” Catalino said.
Need for Change
The National Legal Aid & Defender Association reported in 2008 that Michigan was 44th in per capita spending on indigent defense representation. The $74 million spent annually was 38 percent less than the national average.
A state advisory commission set up in response agreed such efforts were underfunded here. Because indigent defense was decided locally at each county, “The result has been an uncoordinated 83-county patchwork quilt of service delivery systems” — each with its own interpretations of the law and funding limitations.
The legislature created the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission in 2013 to “work to ensure the state’s public defense system is fair, cost-effective and constitutional while protecting public safety and accountability.”
Allegan and Van Buren cooperated to create an office to serve both counties and signed an agreement November 2017. It will follow state requirements passed in January.
The new system will put court-appointed defense in place for each hearing. There are also provisions that ensure the lawyers attend regular professional development and have an experience level appropriate to the seriousness of their clients’ crimes.
“One of the main positives,” said head Allegan County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Zuzech Bakker, “is compensation.” Court-appointed defense attorneys “are not currently paid anywhere near their worth or what the market calls for.
“The new office is going to provide support staff,” Bakker continued. “There will be attorneys, investigative support, paralegal support and they should have that. It somewhat mirrors what happens in a lot of other states.”
Additionally, the new office will take over deciding which lawyers can be court-appointed.
“It takes the judges out of the job of appointing defense attorneys, which I think is good,” Bakker said. “Defendants think, if a judge appointed the public defender, then he’s really a part of the court system and not there independently for me. It’s not true, but I understand the perception.
“It’s very important that people accused of crimes get good quality defense they can believe in.”
“My hope is I will be in Allegan three days a week and Van Buren two days a week,” Catalino said,
He will call upon the current roster of contracted attorneys. Staffing levels in the new office were determined using caseload trends and projections for both counties.
The current plan puts the Allegan office on the street level of the county courthouse, 113 Chestnut St., in the former circuit court probation offices, which have since moved to the jail complex on River Street.
Catalino said the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s study that found Michigan spent only $7.53 per capita on a case in 2008 “is unacceptable. Just because people were indigent, they weren’t getting the representation they needed to test the system.
“That’s really what we’re going to do. We’re going to test the system, hopefully in a way that is innovative,” the new public defender said.