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Op-Ed: Accused Need Fair Defense (Albany Times-Union)

By Corey Stoughton — Kimberly Hurrell-Harring made a mistake. The mother of two was bullied by her jailbird husband into bringing a small amount of marijuana to him in prison. She got caught and, unable to afford a private lawyer on her meager nurse’s salary, she turned to New York’s public defense system to provide her with legal representation.

Kimberly knew she was in trouble, and she was willing to face the consequences. But she did not bargain for a court-appointed lawyer who would allow her to be convicted of a crime more serious than the one she actually committed. Because of her lawyer’s mistakes, this mother with no prior criminal record spent four unnecessary months in jail and lost her nurse’s license, her job and her home.

Kimberly’s nightmare finally ended in October. More than two years after she was arrested, an appellate court reversed her conviction. Though her record is now clean, her dignity remains in shreds. No court ruling can give back to Kimberly, her children and the stroke victim mother she supports the months she was locked up or the years since, as she has fought to feed her family on unemployment.

Everyone expects people who violate the law to pay for their crimes. But we also expect that the justice system will give them lawyers who will make sure they pay only for the crimes they committed. A review of court papers shows Kimberly’s public defense lawyer either did not know or did not have the time to find out that what she did was a misdemeanor, not a felony, and did not make any effort to ensure that her punishment fit her crime. Kimberly says her lawyer met with her once for a few minutes after she was arrested, and after that refused to take her phone calls.

Like all public defense lawyers in New York, that lawyer was working in a system that provides no mandatory training or supervision of their work, offers low wages and meager working conditions that drive high-quality attorneys into private practice and forces attorneys to carry unmanageable case loads that make it impossible to provide adequate representation to any individual client.

What happened to Kimberly is not an isolated case of justice gone wrong. Every day, in courthouses across the state, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor. Unlike Kimberly, who was lucky to attract the pro bono assistance of a big New York law firm to handle her appeal, they are left to fend for themselves without lawyers capable of providing a meaningful defense.

Decades of reports have condemned the inadequacy of New York’s public defense system. Most recently, a panel of experts appointed by then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye declared that this system is “in a state of crisis” and fails to meet basic constitutional standards. In the intervening three years, as in the decades preceding this latest indictment, Albany has done nothing to address the problem. Meanwhile, the Kimberly Hurrell-Harrings of our state are railroaded through the criminal justice system.

If the shame of knowing that people are suffering is not enough to move state leaders to act, then the economic costs of our broken public defense system should be. In these tough times, when budgets are being slashed to save the state from bankruptcy, our representatives in Albany need to face the fact that locking people up when they should not be in jail, dragging out court cases because overworked public defense lawyers cannot show up for hearings and forcing prosecutors and judges to deal with the errors created by ineffective defense work wastes money. Investing in a strong public defense system saves taxpayer dollars by eliminating inefficiencies and reducing jail populations.

Then there is the elephant in the room: the risk that mistakes caused by inadequate legal representation send innocent people to jail while the real criminals remain at large.

When public defense lawyers cannot meet with their clients, investigate their cases and build a legal defense, we all suffer. Ensuring that defendants get their fair day in court is not just about being nice to defendants. It is about protecting all New Yorkers by making sure dangerous criminals are not left to roam the streets when we prosecute and convict the wrong person for their crimes.

The bottom line is a strong public defense system meets New York’s constitutional obligations, saves money and ensures that real justice is done. For far too long, our legislators have ignored the calls for reform coming from lawyers, advocates and even the state’s former chief judge.

Let’s learn from Kimberly’s nightmare. The state must act immediately to fix our public defense system.

Corey Stoughton is a New York Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney and lead counsel in a lawsuit before the Court of Appeals regarding the state’s public defense system.

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