ST. JOSEPH — How Berrien County’s defense attorneys handle arraignments has “radically changed,” with more staff and contact with the accused, Chief Public Defender Chris Renna told the Board of Commissioners’ Administration Committee on Thursday.

This was made possible with the addition of attorneys to assist defendants at their first court appearance, funded largely by a state grant.

The public defender’s office managed 3,957 arraignments in the last fiscal year, that ended Sept. 30, Renna said. Berrien was one of the first counties to provide attorneys at every arraignment, as Michigan bolstered its standards for indigent defense. Prior to that, those who couldn’t afford an attorney typically faced that first court procedure alone, usually by video from the jail.

Renna said his attorneys now meet with the defendants at the jail prior to the arraignment, to get information about their background, housing, employment and other factors that could influence whether the client is held on bail or released on their own recognizance. They also attempt to contact family members, employers and others who can help the accused.

That information is presented to the judge who make the determination of whether bail should be required, and how much, Renna said.

There is another element that makes these contacts important, Renna said, that can have an impact throughout the course of a case.

“It’s important to build that trust from the beginning,” he told commissioners.

The Berrien County public defender’s office, established in January 2017, now has 12 full-time attorneys, along with three criminal investigators, and two legal assistants. The office started with nine attorneys and a part-time investigator, and has been able to supplement its roster through additional state funding.

The office also has six attorneys to handle misdemeanors, two attorneys under contract to be available when conflicts of interest arise (such as a case with multiple defendants) and 10 other attorneys under contract to be available as needed.

Prior to the creation of the public defender’s office Berrien County contracted with attorneys to provide indigent defense, with little oversight. Those attorneys did not appear at arraignments.

Renna said that staff members average around 15 to 20 calls a day to family and employers on behalf of their clients. On Mondays, after weekend arrests, that can increase to 30 to 40, he said.

Commissioner Michael Majerek questioned whether those calls could be handled by office staff rather than attorneys.

When the volume increases, investigators and other staff members help out with calls, Renna said, but there is no substitute for a trained lawyer.

“There is really no way to replace that connection when an attorney is involved,” Renna said.

He conceded that some defendants are “frequent fliers” who have been to court many times, and know the system. But most are people who are in trouble for the first time, or haven’t been to court in a long time, Renna said.

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission has approved Berrien County’s request for a $2.5 million grant that will help pay for the additional attorneys handling misdemeanors. The county pays a share based on its average cost for indigent defense over the past three years, which has been around $560,000.

With the growing staff, one of the office’s pressing needs is additional space. They now occupy the building at 100 Church St., adjacent to the jail and courthouse.

Administrator Bill Wolf said that 10 people occupy the second floor, which he said is “pretty tight.”

The entire building is at “max capacity,” Wolf said, and they will be looking for additional office space nearby as soon as the first payment on the state grant is received in January.

Commissioner Jim Curran said he has heard rumblings that state legislators are getting nervous about the funding required for indigent defense, as more counties get on board.

Renna said that lawmakers have earmarked $125 million for indigent defense for this year, which includes $40 million left over from the previous year’s allocation. There is “massive bipartisan agreement” for continuing the effort that began under a conservative, Republican governor and legislature, he added.

“I think they’re very comfortable that the grant program is going to continue,” Renna said.

One development down the road is the updating of case load standards by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which is likely to affect staffing requirements statewide, Renna reported. The Berrien office handled 6,157 cases last year, an average of around 513 a month.

Renna pointed out that, with its early embrace of the new standards and its success with its public defender’s office, other counties are coming here to learn how it is done.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak