County hires new Chief Public Defender
As part of statewide efforts to bolster court-appointed legal defense, officials recently selected Chad D. Catalino of Grand Haven to head the new Allegan/Van Buren Counties’ Public Defender Office.
As chief public defender, he will oversee offices in Allegan and Paw Paw together with eight staff including two public defense lawyers.
Speaking to Allegan County Commissioners before they officially approved his selection Thursday, March 28, Catalino said, “I am extremely honored and humbled that the people of Van Buren and Allegan Counties, through their respective representatives, have allowed me this opportunity to lead the newly formed Public Defender’s Office; and I will work tirelessly to protect the rights of our citizens while setting our Office out as the example across Michigan for the ethical, innovative, collaborative and holistic representation of all people.”
Catalino said he expects to begin setting up the office in Allegan County starting April 8. Ideally, he hopes to have the office set up and staffed within 60 days.
“It’s an aggressive timeline, but we’re going to try to do that,” he said. “Because of the startup of our holistic approach, I’m already working to get partnerships with local universities to get interns and social workers involved as quickly as we can. That’s a longer term goal and in reality may take a year before we can make that work on the ground.
“To have the opportunity to serve your constituents on what’s going to amount to one of the worst days of their lives, is really humbling. I’m really excited about the opportunity.”
The need for change
In 2008, the legislature received a report on the state’s indigent defense system from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, which concluded that Michigan was 44th in per capita spending on indigent defense representation. The approximately $74 million spent annually was 38 percent less than the national average.
In 2011, an advisory commission was established; it convened hearings to form recommendations on improving various faults in the system. It released its findings in 2012.
“Testimony presented to the commission indicated that Michigan’s indigent defense ... is significantly underfunded,” the commission reported. It noted the state had left indigent defense to be 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 simultaneously protecting public safety and accountability.”
Allegan and Van Buren counties cooperated to create an office to serve both counties and signed an agreement November 2017. The plan the office will follow to meet the state’s requirements was passed in January.
Circuit Court Judge Margaret Zuzich Bakker said the changes were needed but were not because indigent defense locally was failing defendants.
“I feel like we have an excellent cadre of court-appointed attorneys,” she said. “This change is good, because they’ll have more resources and they’ll be paid more appropriately, they’ll have the ability to have a finite number of cases. But we have good attorneys here who do good jobs.”
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 a level of experience appropriate to the seriousness of their clients’ crimes.
“And one of the main positives is compensation,” Bakker said. “They’re (currently) not paid anywhere near their worth or what the market calls for.
“The new office is going to provide support staff. It won’t be exact duplication of what’s at a prosecutor’s office, but there will be attorneys, investigative support, paralegal support, and they should have that. It somewhat mirrors what happens in a lot of other states.”
The total budget for the combined office’s first year will be $2,217,515. Of that total is the $529,260 both counties already spend on indigent defense; that is required to continue at that level or higher to qualify for the increased state funding.
Additionally, the new office will take over deciding which lawyers can be court-appointed.
“It takes the judges out of the job of appointing court-appointed 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 he’s not really 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.”
Allegan County administrator Rob Sarro said Van Buren commissioners confirmed Catalino’s hiring March 27.
“This was a very important and vigorous process for us,” he said.
Catalino was selected from among about 16 candidates, Sarro said, after posting the job last December. An interview team of himself, Van Buren administrator John Faul, chairs of each county commission, and judges from each county evaluated the candidates in a two-tier process.
Sarro said, “When the process was all done, we were very pleased to be able to appoint a candidate who specifically has experience in a public defender’s office.”
He said Catalino had a long track record of excellence. He has 16 years experience in public defense and previously served as division director for the Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office. He earned an undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State University and a Juris Doctorate degree from Michigan State University.
Balancing two offices will be a challenge but is one Catalino said he is eager to tackle.
“My hope is I will be in Allegan three days a week and in Van Buren two days a week,” he said, though he suspects there will be periods of time that will see him stay in either location for longer stretches. “Depending on the caseloads, if there are cases that are exceptionally difficult, my hope is to be a support in whoever’s appointed or if it’s our in-house lawyers—so we can spend time with those people trying to make sure they have all the resources they need to represent them.”
According to county administration, Catalino 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 Allegan 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 he wasn’t naïve in that he knew there was a considerable amount of work ahead. He quoted the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s study that found Michigan spent only $7.53 per capita on a case in 2008.
“To me, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to me that people, just because they 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.”
He said the Muskegon office he worked with had partnered with an organization operating in the Bronx, N.Y., that practices holistic defense, in which, according to the Harvard Law Review, “public defenders work in interdisciplinary teams to address both the immediate case and the underlying life circumstances—such as drug addiction, mental illness, or family or housing instability.”
“We’re going to try to implement some of that here,” Catalino said.
He also hopes to partner with a company for software that helps automatically alert clients by text and email about upcoming hearings.
“When you’re not reminding our clients of those things, they don’t show up for court as readily, they sit in jail when they shouldn’t, it raises costs for the court—it’s going to give us an opportunity to be really proactive in that.
“We’re going to make mistakes; I’m going to own those. But we’re going to get up and pull our bootstraps up and try to do better, collaboratively with law enforcement, the court system, with administration, with commissioners, the prosecutor’s office—we’re going to work really hard to give the people their constitutional right.”
Allegan County commissioners voted unanimously to confirm his appointment.
Contact Ryan Lewis at (269) 673-5534.