Grillo, 40, who practiced from a Clinton Township office, earlier this year was named a regional manager for the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which is in midst of a multi-year process of upgrading the quality of court-appointed defense representation for poor defendants. She earns a $75,000 salary.
“Ninety percent of the reason I took this job is I want to help make a better system where I have been practicing every day,” Grillo said. “I want to make an impact where I live and make something we can be proud of.”
“We’re building a blueprint to build a better criminal-defense system across the state” that she promised will be “wonderful” when finished.
Grillo, who also worked four years as a communications trainer for Quicken Loans, is one of a six regional managers who are helping local communities comply with and implement eight standards set by the commission. She oversees Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Lapeer counties.
One standard, which is probably two years away, is focused on increasing the compensation of public defenders. Low pay has been a long-time gripe of court-appointed attorneys and blamed for deficient legal representative of some indigent defendants.
“My concern is defense attorneys for indigent defendants don’t get paid enough,” said Steve Freers, a Fraser-based attorney who often represents poor clients. “I’m hoping they give us some parity.”
Freers said court-appointed defense attorneys are at a disadvantage in battling well-funded prosecutor’s offices.
Grillo agreed that has to change.
“You don’t get paid as defense counsel for an indigent client for a lot of the work you do,” she said. “You want to be able to make a living and survive. “Attorneys are underpaid across the state of Michigan, not just Macomb County.”
Macomb County’s fee schedule for court-appointed attorneys has changed little since 1979. Attorneys receive set fees for certain court proceedings, or $25 per hour for off-schedule work, although local judges typically approve attorneys’ motion for “extraordinary fees” in complicated or major cases.
The commission was formed in 2014 following revelations that Michigan was among worst states in the nation for paying for indigent defense and was subject of a federal lawsuit. Increasing the pay, along with the other seven standards, will help achieve the goal “to make sure all people get equal justice in Michigan courts,” said Jonathan Sacks, director of the commission.
Grillo is assisting 25 courts in her four counties in drafting compliance plans to submit to the commission. Counties, townships or cities that fund courts must file plans by Nov. 20 to comply with the first four standards. Highlights of those standards are:
• Require attorneys to complete 12 continuing law credits per year.
• Require attorneys to attempt to meet with their new client within three business days of their appointment.
• Encourage attorneys to file more motions for experts, most notably private investigators, and
• Require indigent defendants to have legal representation at their initial court appearance.
The commission is expected to approve each court’s plan for the first four standards by early next year and submit them for state funding for fiscal year 2018-19. The state has indicated it will pay for the increased expenses.
Meanwhile, standards five through seven are up for public comment through Oct. 6. Those standards revolve around attorney caseloads and qualifications, and independence between the judiciary and defense attorneys,
The eighth standard, which revolves around compensation for public defenders, will be addressed last as officials are researching the economics.
The standards are coming as Macomb County officials are looking at ways to upgrade the local criminal justice system. A primary recommendation of a study released in May is to establish a central booking facility at the county jail at Groesbeck Highway and Elizabeth Road in Mount Clemens.
Grillo told the county Board of Commissioners at a May committee meeting that a central-intake facility will help achieve standard No. 4, providing legal representation to defendants at their first court appearance, which typically doesn’t happen in Macomb County.
“It would be vital and would make the system run so much smoother,” Grillo told commissioners.
Having lawyers argue on their behalf right away would give indigent defendants a better chance at securing a lower bond and release, which would meet one of county officials’ goals — reducing or stabilizing the jail population.
Another recommendation of the study is creation of a public-defender office, which has received tepid response from some officials due to its expected high cost. Currently, public defenders in Macomb County are appointed from lists of private-practice attorneys.
Grillo advised the board, “It doesn’t have to be a full office,” noting that Wayne County has a “blended” system, including a public-defender office and private-attorney list.
A committee of Macomb County lawyers and officials is working on a proposal for a public defender office.
Sheriff Anthony Wickersham is in the process of mulling the suggestions of the Jail Needs Analysis & Criminal Justice System Assessment to make formal proposals to the board.
Grillo, who graduated from Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores, worked as a law clerk for defense attorney Stephen Rabaut for three years before receiving her law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School and obtaining her license in 2011.
For more details, visit the commission web site michiganidc.gov/michigan-indigent-defense-commission/