NYCLU asks legislators to spin “Wheel of Justice” to garner support for funding public defense


Lobbyists for the NYCLU had legislators and visitors to the capitol spin the “Wheel of Justice” to try their luck in New York’s criminal justice system. Gazette photo by Jonathan Forrester

The NYCLU broke out its “Wheel of Justice” and asked legislators to give it a spin and test their fate in New York’s “broken criminal justice system,” as a way to raise awareness and promote support for the Justice Equality Act.

The bill, (A.1903) which would provide full state funding for public defenders, is sponsored by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, and passed both the Assembly and Senate last session, but was vetoed by the governor in December.

It has not yet been reintroduced in the Senate by last year’s sponsor, Senator John DeFrancisco, R- Syracuse.

According to the bill language, the legislation would ensure that “all persons accused of crimes in New York are able to receive effective legal representation whether or not they have the ability to pay for a lawyer by establishing a system of direct state funding at the requisite adequate level to eliminate the geographic disparity in representation.”

Full state funding of indigent defense would be in place by 2024 if the bill is passed into law.
The Wheel of Justice was placed at the entrance of The Legislative Office Building during a recent busy day at the state Capitol to help raise awareness of the bill.

Legislators and other passersby spun the wheel, which landed on various legal outcomes including “death,” “ruined,” “kids taken,” “racism,” “silenced,” “eviction,” “go to jail,” “homeless,” “beaten up,” and “take the blame.”

Originally built to make their case in the case of Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, which found that the state was negligent in funding public defense, the “Wheel of Justice” features true stories of New Yorkers and their experience with the criminal justice system. The wheel made a comeback as a way to “educate legislators and the public,” according to NYCLU’s Legislative Director Robert Perry.

Assemblymember Pat Fahy, D-Albany, spun the wheel and landed on “beaten up,” a real New Yorker’s experience with police brutality and unfairness in the criminal justice system. Gazette photo by Jonathan Forrester


“Many times a day across the state, folks who are entitled to a lawyer as a constitutional matter when facing criminal charges are not getting effective representation,” Perry said. “Every day that constitutional right to a public defender is violated, and that’s because the state has failed to honor its constitutional obligation to fund public defense services aptly.”

As a result of the Hurrell-Harring case, the state was required to ensure every defendant in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties has a lawyer at arraignment, that the lawyer be competent, have sufficient staff and not take on more cases than they can handle. New York also had to invest $4 million to improve communications between lawyers and defendants, and strengthen the office of indigent legal services as an independent oversight committee on the programs across the state.

The governor vetoed the Justice Equality Act in the closing hours of 2016, saying, the bill placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers — $600 million of which was unnecessary — with no money to pay for it.

According to Perry, the governor’s veto may have misunderstood the provisions regarding cases in family court, and what costs were associated with it.

“Family court representation represents about 25 to 30 percent of all public defense costs,” he said. “It’s appropriate for public defenders to be providing both representation in family court and in criminal court, because you often have clients in both venues.”

Perry says the veto stopping this legislation was “misguided,” and it has now halted the progress of the legislation, which passed unanimously in both the Assembly and the Senate last year.

“The lawmakers had it right,” he said. “The problem right now is that Pat Fahy has reintroduced the Justice Equality Act but Senator DeFrancisco has not. It’s the right approach as a matter of law and public policy, and we’re calling on lawmakers and the governor to get it right.”