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Op-Ed: End State’s Two-Tiered Justice System (amNew York)

By Donna Lieberman

New York’s two-tiered criminal justice system — one in which poor people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer are forced to rely on the state’s dismal system of public defense — has claimed tens of thousands of victims.

In a few weeks, the state will go to court in Albany in a class-action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union claiming the system violates the U.S. Constitution.

No one benefits when people go to jail because the state failed to provide effective lawyers. No one benefits when people lose their jobs, homes and children as they languish in jail because their attorneys have too many clients to contact them. No one benefits when taxpayers pay for the incarceration of innocent people.

The responsibility for what happens to innocent people who go to jail belongs to the state. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged 50 years ago in the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision what it called an “obvious truth” — that most people don’t know enough about the law to defend themselves. A lawyer is a necessity in criminal court. And for those without the means to hire one, defense services must be provided by the state.
Instead, New York dumped its responsibility on its 62 counties. The hodgepodge of public defense systems is inconsistent, underfunded and subject to no statewide oversight or standards.

A report released Wednesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union — based on data collected over the course of the litigation — exposes deficits in our public defense system.

Tragically, the failure of county-based public defense systems across the state is its own “obvious truth,” as it underscores the state’s negligence.

The state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo must replace the disorganized and underfunded arrangement with a public defense system run and funded by the state, and one that establishes statewide caseload limits and standards for client representation, and that provides proper oversight.

Across New York, 14 counties have formally asked the state to take over public defense and settle the suit. While state leaders should not need a court order to provide the fundamental right to counsel, the court is now in a position to end this 50-year shame.

Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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