A contract between the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and a law firm hired to train and oversee prisoner legal writers drew controversy last year before it was rebid. The “legal writer” program was created pursuant to a 1996 federal court order arising from a 1992 lawsuit.
The program provides 80 hours of training to prisoners who serve as legal aides. Once trained, they are available to provide legal assistance to MDOC’s prison population on a qualifying basis. The 15,000 prisoners without a high school diploma or GED qualify for help, as do prisoners in segregation, who do not speak or write English, are held in inpatient medical units, or have mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from using prison law libraries.
The legal writers are provided access to a computer to help other prisoners draft legal pleadings and complaints. In a submission to the State Administrative Board, the MDOC said the contract with the law firm was necessary “to comply with the prisoners’ constitutional right of access to the courts.”
Some critics think it’s ridiculous for state officials to pay lawyers to train prisoners to help file lawsuits against the state.
“I would imagine they would be able to find attorneys who would be happy to take their cases [on a contingency basis] because they would be eligible to collect [fees] for it,” said Leon Drolet, chairman of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. “They should find representation the same way everybody else has to.”
However, the Prison Litigation Reform Act and state caps on damages limit attorney fees and dissuade many lawyers from taking prisoner cases; further, it is often difficult for prisoners to contact and recruit counsel to assist them with their legal claims – particularly for prisoners who are illiterate or mentally ill. And besides lawsuits, prisoners also need help to challenge their convictions and deal with other legal issues.
Peter Martel, who was an MDOC legal writer in the 2000s and is studying to be an attorney while working as a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee’s criminal justice project, noted the legal writer program not only helps prisoners remedy violations of their rights, but may even save taxpayers money. Legal writers can weed out issues that prisoners should not waste their time on, avoiding unnecessary and costly litigation.
“There are all kinds of things to complain about in prison; that doesn’t necessarily make them good legal complaints,” Martel stated.
In 2009, the Grand Rapids-based Peterson Paletta PLC law firm was awarded a three-year contract worth $2.3 million to train and oversee the prisoner legal writers. It supplied training materials, software instruction and testing. The contract was extended twice for one-year terms, worth $752,000 each. Then the optional extensions ran out, but the MDOC continued the contract on a no-bid basis for six months at a cost of $376,000; it was seeking another nine-month extension for $564,000 when controversy erupted.
A Detroit Free Press article published on February 23, 2015, the same day the State Administrative Board was to meet for a typical rubber stamp approval of the contract extension, reported that Jessica Peterson – the wife of Kevin Peterson, a partner at Peterson Paletta – had been a registered lobbyist for the MDOC from 2011 to January 2014.
She did not work for the MDOC when the prisoner legal writer contract was originally awarded in 2009, and disclosed that her husband’s law firm had a contract with the agency when she was hired. MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said Jessica Peterson was “too far removed” from the procurement process to have a role in the contracting process.
The State Administrative Board extended the legal writer contract for one month at $60,000, giving MDOC officials time to rebid the contract with other law firms participating. Peterson Paletta apparently submitted the best bid, as the state entered into a new three-year contract with the firm effective October 1, 2015 at a cost of $831,600. The contract, which expires in 2018, includes two one-year optional extensions.
Sources: Detroit Free Press, www.michigan.gov
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