Indigent defense to be fully funded statewide

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New York state will begin phasing in full funding of public defense offices across the state as part of the 2018 budget finalized last week. Advocates from the Bar Association, defenders association, clergy, and local leaders commended legislators and Governor Cuomo for including the groundwork for the funding in the budget.

State funding will reimburse county expenses, which are currently required to financially support legal defense services for those who can’t afford a private attorney. This mandate, issued in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, placed too heavy a burden on counties with limited resources, many local officials say.

Costs will be determined by standards formulated by the Office of Indigent Legal Services, including reasonable caseload limits for defenders, proper training, supervision, support staff, and access to necessary resources for an effective and fair defense.

The decision to place financial responsibility for public defense services on counties was challenged in 2007, and in 2015, the settlement in the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit required the state to begin funding representation in five diverse counties. The FY 2018 budget will extend the provisions of that case to the remaining 57 counties in New York.

Advocates who have fought for this cause for several years are excited at this first step in fully funding legal defense. “The public defense reform achieved in this budget is absolutely transformational,” New York State Defenders Association director Jonathan Gradess said. “It places New York on an irreversible path toward equal justice.”

The provisions included in the budget will ensure that all criminal defendants have counsel at arraignment, attorneys have an appropriate and manageable caseload, and the independent Office of Indigent Legal services maintains oversight over all public defense offices.

According to Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, funding public defense will help New York “move away from having two systems of justice.” “This agreement provides the state will pay for counsel at first appearance, provide caseload relief and additional resources, which will cap future expenses to counties that are already burdened with unfunded mandates,” McCoy said.

A poor, rushed legal defense can be life altering for impoverished defendants, who often receive excessively high bail offers and misleading plea bargains. Some plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, because their counsel cannot dedicate sufficient time to their case.

Funding public defense offices is not simply a legal issue, but a moral issue as well, according to several members of clergy who joined the many months of advocacy at the state Capitol. “The Catholic Church believes in the mandate to provide social justice for all, regardless of income, race, or any other difference,” Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard said. “This is based on God’s call to us all to help the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the hungry, and the homeless.”

More than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruling establishing the constitutional right to an attorney, “New York is making a major commitment to fulfilling the promise of Gideon,” Robert Perry, legislative director for the NYCLU said.