LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The Michigan House approved a bill Thursday to create a new system to oversee the delivery of legal representation to low-income defendants.
The measure that passed on a 71-36 vote would implement recommendations of Gov. Rick Snyder's commission on indigent defense. The bill now goes to the state Senate.
Michigan's decentralized approach to the appointment of lawyers for people who cannot afford them has been widely criticized as uneven and inadequate.
The bill would create a 14-member Michigan Indigent Defense Commission to oversee the appointment and monitor the performance of lawyers who represent low-income defendants.
The legislation "helps ensure consistent, qualified and cost-effective legal counsel to low-income criminal defendants in Michigan," said Rich Adams, a spokesman for state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, one of the bill's sponsors.
McMillin said working to "ensure as much equal justice as possible" is an important role of government.
"In addition, it costs $35,000 a year to keep one person behind bars, and if that person is serving time because of a wrongful conviction, it adds up," he said in a statement. "That's money that could be better used elsewhere in the budget. It's a matter of being fiscally responsible."
Marcela Westrate, executive director of Michigan Campaign for Justice, said the bill is an overdue fix to a system that has punished poor people for crimes they didn't commit.
"The passage of House Bill 5804 is a major step forward in what has been a very, very long push to reform the indigent defense system in Michigan," Westrate said. "For years, problems within our system have cost taxpayers money and cost some residents years of their life as a result of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned."
She said Snyder "was right to create a commission to address this serious problem," and thanked lawmakers from both major parties for backing the legislation.