OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — The newly-created public defender office is hiring more attorneys and close to taking over cases for all indigent clients in Ottawa County, county officials said.

For decades, the county contracted with more than 20 attorneys to represent people who could not afford it. Due to a state mandate by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, officials established a public defender office last October.

The old system worked well for around 50-60 years, said Robert Hamilton, who was hired to lead the office.

“We will now move it into more of a team approach to the practice of indigent defense,” Hamilton said. “We will bring the resources that team members have to offer rather than individual attorneys practicing out of small practices had to offer.”

Ottawa County paid around $927,000 for public defense under the old system. The public defender office costs $2.8 million to create, but the state will cover the difference, said County Administrator Al Vanderberg.

“[It’s] almost completely cost neutral,” Vanderberg said. “The state has stood up to its end of the bargain. By early April we have to have the whole thing live and running.”

Hamilton has already filled 9 of the 14 open attorney spots in the office. They started taking cases on Jan 2. and now cover 30 percent of newly appointed cases.

“We hope to be taking all the new cases by the end of February and I think that’s very doable,” Hamilton said.

Court appointed attorneys took an average of 2,875 cases per year from 2008-2016, county records show. The system will be more efficient even though public defenders will take more cases, said Hamilton, a veteran defense attorney.

“We are going to be continuing to provide high quality representation for the people in our county who are oftentimes the most problematic for our county,” the veteran defense attorney said. “That’s our job – that’s our duty.”

After years of success, Hamilton was the right choice to revamp the public defense in Ottawa County, Vanderberg said.

 “It had been done the same way for so long,” he said. “We thought bob was the right person to be that head…and indeed we’ve had fantastic numbers of applicants. He is leading that cultural change.”

The public defender office will have locations in Holland and Grand Haven. 

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