Cover: Caseload Standards for Indigent Defenders in Michigan

Caseload Standards for Indigent Defenders in Michigan

Final Project Report for the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission

Published Aug 26, 2019

by Nicholas M. Pace, Dulani Woods, Shamena Anwar, Roberto Guevara, Chau Pham, Karin Liu


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Research Question

  1. What should the MIDC consider in determining maximum caseload standards for providers of indigent legal representation to adult defendants in the trial-level courts of the state of Michigan?

In 2017, the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) asked the RAND Corporation for assistance in determining maximum caseload standards for providers of indigent legal representation to adult defendants in the trial-level courts of the state of Michigan. Such standards are intended to act as one means — though certainly not the only one — of ensuring that indigent defenders will have sufficient time to effectively represent the clients whom they have been appointed to defend. Similar to previous studies in other states that have also addressed the question of reasonable caseloads, this project conducted three data collection efforts to provide the empirical foundation for the Michigan standards: an eight-week time study, a survey of criminal defense attorneys, and a September 2018 conference where experienced criminal defenders reviewed the previously collected data and recommended average time expenditures for counsel representing indigent defendants in various categories of criminal matters in Michigan trial courts. The authors present for the MIDC's consideration recommended caseload standards based on analysis of the collected data.

Key Findings

Time study results indicated long workweeks and time spent on cases similar to defenders elsewhere

  • Participants reported working a mean of 46 hours each week, though one-quarter reported 50 or more hours worked, and 10 percent reported 60 or more hours.
  • Estimated hours for Michigan misdemeanors are somewhat on the low side of a range informed by research involving statewide public defender services in other states.
  • Average estimated hours for different types of Michigan felony cases are generally similar to what has been reported elsewhere.

Attorney survey results showed defenders have widely varying access to resources, but all would recommend spending more time on cases

  • The Michigan indigent defense bar consists of public defenders, private counsel whose practice primarily consists of court appointments in criminal matters, and private counsel for whom indigent defense is minor part of the practice.
  • There are stark differences in the size of law firms or organizations and in support staff resources reported by attorneys, depending on how much of their work involves indigent defense.
  • All types of indigent defense attorneys recommended average time expenditures greater than the results of the time study.

The caseload standards setting conference results generally echoed the recommendation of more time

  • In all instances but one, the expert panel's recommendations for average hours for each case type equaled or, more commonly, exceeded those reported in the attorney survey.


Based on the expert deliberations and the assumption of 1,856 case-related duty hours available annually per indigent defense attorney, the authors recommend these annual caseload maximums:

  • murder or manslaughter: 15 cases
  • criminal sexual conduct (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees): 23 cases
  • other class A felony offense: 37 cases
  • other high-severity felonies: 46 cases
  • low-severity felonies and two-year high court misdemeanors: 74 cases
  • one-year misdemeanors: 232 cases
  • 93-day misdemeanors: 265 days
  • probation violations: 530 days
  • all other adult criminal indigent client matters: 619 days.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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