The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a request for immediate emergency relief to address New York State’s broken public defense system. In November, the NYCLU and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP filed a landmark class action lawsuit that charged the state with failing to uphold its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to New Yorkers who are accused of crimes and cannot afford to pay private lawyers. The situation is far too dire and the stakes too high to wait for relief, however. There are steps that can be taken now to ease the situation in the short term. “At this moment there are New Yorkers who are being denied justice simply because they are poor,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “We look forward to a full resolution to this urgent problem, but with lives on the line we can’t afford to sit back and wait. Immediate action is necessary.” The November class action lawsuit charges that a lack of adequate funding, oversight and statewide standards is denying New Yorkers accused of crimes their lawful right to competent, qualified and timely representation at all stages of the justice process, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York. Plaintiffs are defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties who have encountered these problems, but the lawsuit seeks statewide reform on behalf of all defendants who are or will be charged with felonies, misdemeanors or lesser offenses and who cannot afford a lawyer. Currently, court-appointed lawyers across the state are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and lack sufficient staff and resources to do their jobs. Some lack the necessary experience and training to competently handle their cases. As a result of these deficiencies, many individuals facing criminal charges are compelled to appear in court without a lawyer at critical junctures, such as when bail decisions are made. This often results in excessive bail being set and keeps too many people in jail awaiting trial. Studies link high bail to an increased likelihood of conviction. Many public defense lawyers also fail to: meet or consult with clients at critical stages in their cases; investigate the charges against their clients or hire necessary forensic experts; file necessary pre-trial motions; and provide meaningful consultation before clients accept plea bargains, even when this is a viable defense. “The public defense crisis in New York is unfair both to defendants and to the lawyers who are charged with representing them,” said lead counsel on the case, NYCLU Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “Defendants are unfairly given second-rate justice because they cannot afford to pay private lawyers, and public defense attorneys are not given the resources, tools and training they need to do right by their clients.”
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