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Letter: Needed in New York: Better Legal Defense for the Poor (New York Times)

To the Editor:

“The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50,” by Lincoln Caplan (Sunday Observer, March 10), cites problems with public defense in Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia. New York is also a prime example of a state that has failed to meet its obligation, under Gideon v. Wainwright, to provide lawyers to poor people accused of crimes.

Every day in courtrooms in some parts of the state, New Yorkers appear for their initial hearings before judges without attorneys by their sides. Unrepresented, people accused of low-level misdemeanors like shoplifting or possessing small amounts of marijuana often end up languishing in jail for weeks and even months because they can’t afford exorbitant bail. Or they plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because it’s easier and they can avoid jail time. Some meet their public defenders for the first time just moments before a court hearing. Justice cannot be served under these conditions.

No one benefits when an innocent person goes to jail because the state failed to provide a competent lawyer. And it sure doesn’t protect public safety. Taxpayers should not have to pay the costs of incarceration when we send innocent people to jail or lock up minor offenders for too long because they don’t have adequate representation.

For years, prominent voices — including two chief judges of New York’s highest court — have called for reform. But those calls have gone unanswered. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has shown that he is a leader with a strong sense of justice. Our broken indigent defense system is crying out for his leadership.

Donna Lieberman
Executive Director, New York Civil Liberties Union

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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