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Op-Ed: State Must Reform Town And Village Courts And Address Indigent Defense Crisis (Albany Times-Union)

By Melanie Trimble and Corey Stoughton — In the town of Coxsackie, just 20 miles south of Albany, the local town and village court judge was known for jailing people accused of crimes and awaiting trial for much longer than the law allows – in one case for 64 days because he thought the man had information about vandalism at the justice’s own home. This judge was not even supposed to be on the bench, as he had failed the very basic true-or-false test required to become a justice.

Another judge, in a rural town near Utica, jailed a small farmer for ten days without bail and without a chance to defend himself because the judge single-handedly decided the farmer was violating local livestock codes. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct described the incident as “a shocking abuse of judicial power.” Yet another Utica-area judge asked the prosecutor to write an opinion for her in a case involving evidence of an illegal search, because she did not “really have the time to puzzle this out.”

These stories — and similar stories from all over the state –- recently came to light in a shocking New York Times expose on New York’s broken town and village court system. The judges in these courts preside over tens of thousands of cases in New York every year yet have little to no legal training or respect for the law.

The investigation identified justices who routinely jail defendants in order to coerce them into pleading guilty, engage in brazen acts of corruption, and openly tolerate racial slurs in their courtrooms.

Yet the scandal of town and village courts is just one of the many obstacles that stand between criminal defendants and the justice they deserve. Across the State of New York, defendants who cannot afford attorneys are routinely denied the counsel they are guaranteed by law.

The results shock the conscience. In one upstate county, dozens of sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds regularly sit in jail at any particular time. Their lawyers never visit them and do not accept phone calls, which can only be made collect from the jail. These incarcerated children have no idea what is happening in their case, and they languish in jail on petty charges.

In another county, a mother of an eight-year-old child was locked up without bail because she was not provided an attorney at her arraignment. Even after getting an attorney, she sat in county jail for two months because her public defender never visited or spoke with her despite numerous attempts she and her family made to contact him. In court, her public defender read a magazine instead of preparing her case. She was forced to become homeless in order to raise money to hire a private attorney to handle her case and win her release from jail.

The right to a public defense has been recognized again and again by courts, but the reality on the ground is that the system is under-funded, understaffed, and under-resourced. Earlier this year a blue-ribbon commission assembled by the Chief Judge of New York State, Judith S. Kaye, issued a report finding “a crisis in the delivery of defense services to the indigent throughout New York State.” The Commission Report calls for a fully funded, independent New York public defender office that will ensure justice in every court in the state.

The recent investigation of town and village courts and the Kaye Commission report are just the latest reminders that there is a crisis in our criminal justice system. Now we must solve that crisis. Every accused person must have an accountable, competent, and well-trained attorney who has the time and resources to provide meaningful advice and counsel at every critical stage of the prosecutorial process.

New Yorkers should not have to wait for a lawsuit to accomplish this goal. Our new governor and legislature must move to reform both the public defense system and the town and village courts. Failure to do so would be its own crime.

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