NYCLU Report Exposes NY’s Failure to Provide Public Defense to Poor in Violation of Constitution

September 17, 2014 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today released a report revealing grim new data regarding New York State’s abject failure to provide public defense services to poor people accused of crimes, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, state constitution and the laws of New York. The new report also features testimonials from New Yorkers across the state whose families, homes and livelihoods were devastated by the broken public defense system.

“New York State’s failure to provide counsel to people too poor to afford an attorney violates the Constitution and devastates the lives of people every day in much of the state,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman “Justice cannot be a luxury for the rich. No one benefits when innocent people go to jail because the state failed to provide an effective lawyer to defend them.”

The report, State of Injustice: How New York State Turns its Back on the Right to Counsel for the Poor, focuses on five counties: Onondaga (Syracuse), Suffolk, Ontario, Schuyler and Washington. In each of these counties, people too poor to afford private attorneys too often appear before judges without a lawyer by their side, or are forced to navigate the criminal justice system with a revolving cast of overworked attorneys unfamiliar with their cases. The report acknowledges that many if not most public defense attorneys are diligent and strive to protect the rights of their clients. But they are too often thwarted by caseloads up to five times the recommended maximums and a lack of resources for investigations, experts and even workplace basics like computers.

The report documents the tragic impact the failure to get adequate legal representation has on New Yorkers’ lives. In parts of the state, people who have not been convicted of a crime can await trial in jail for months when an attorney might have negotiated their release – and they lose their jobs, homes and even ailing partners and children in the process. If the state supplied proper funding, adequate resources and caseload limitations as it is constitutionally required, these tragedies may be avoided.

“The system is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Suffolk County resident Donald Telfair, one of the people featured in the report. “The amount of money someone makes should not determine how justice is served.”

Among the NYCLU’s findings is that:

  • Experts were consulted in effectively zero percent of the tens of thousands of public defense cases in Suffolk County.
  • In Onondaga, Suffolk and Schuyler counties, criminal defendants regularly appeared at arraignment without attorneys.
  • In Onondaga County, where there are routinely more than 10,000 public defense cases a year, in 2012 defendants never met with an attorney outside of court in almost one-third of public defense cases. Most of them ultimately plead guilty to criminal charges.
  • In parts of New York State, public defense attorneys have been known to carry 420 felonies a year – nearly three times the recommended maximum. Washington County failed to even track caseloads at all in 2012.
  • In some counties, many attorneys spent more time billing than talking to their clients or witnesses.
  • In Onondaga County, prosecutors received 35 times more public funds for investigation than public defense attorneys.

The data is drawn from summary judgment papers and other sources in a lawsuit filed nearly seven years ago by the NYCLU and the law firm of Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP against the state over its failure to provide adequate counsel to poor criminal defendants. The lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. New York, is set to go to trial Tuesday, Oct. 7 in Albany. It will be the first trial of its kind in the nation.

“Our criminal justice system only works at producing the truth if both the prosecution and the defense are on equal footing. In much of New York State, the system is broken,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the Hurrell-Harring case. “Until the state accepts responsibility for providing public defense, the deck will be stacked against poor New Yorkers who are too often denied justice and suffer the consequences.”

The NYCLU’s report recommends three broad reforms to end the constitutional violations taking place in many parts of New York State and ensure every New Yorker has the right to an attorney:

  • Ensure that there is a lawyer representing every poor criminal defendant at his or her initial court appearance, and that the lawyer has met with the defendant and is adequately prepared to contest the charges being brought.
  • Immediately reduce the caseloads of public defense attorneys to ensure that they have sufficient time to dedicate to each case.
  • Replace the disorganized and underfunded county-based system of public defense with a functional system run by New York State with adequate funding, standards and supervision to assure poor criminal defendants received the defense to which they are entitled under the Constitution.

Last month the NYCLU launched the #WheelofJusticeNY campaign to highlight the state’s broke public defense system. The campaign – complete with a travelling Wheel of Fortune-style game that can also be played online – has resulted in the thousands of messages calling on Governor Cuomo and state leaders to fix the public defense system.