The New York Civil Liberties Union today condemned Governor Cuomo’s late-night, New Year’s Eve veto of bipartisan legislation that would have overhauled New York state’s failing public defense system. The legislation would have established statewide standards for effective counsel and shifted financial responsibility for public defense services from counties to the state – reforms based on the results of a settlement in the NYCLU’s lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. New York. The new standards would have included limits on public defense attorneys’ caseloads, the presence of counsel at a criminal defendant’s first court appearance and access to the resources necessary to provide adequate representation.
“We are deeply disappointed that the governor has vetoed the most important criminal justice reform legislation in memory,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “He has rejected a groundbreaking and bipartisan fix to our deeply flawed public defense system and left in place the status quo, in which the state violates the rights of New Yorkers every day and delivers unequal justice.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the state must provide a competent lawyer to people facing criminal charges who are too poor to hire one. However, New York State passed this responsibility to its counties, creating a patchwork of public defense programs that have been underfunded and inadequate. As a result, poor New Yorkers charged with crimes have often appeared in court without a lawyer or with a lawyer who is under-resourced. They have been held pre-trial on excessively high bail; accepted plea deals that are unfair; and received harsh sentences for low-level misdemeanors and petty offenses.
The state legislature passed reform legislation (S.8114/A.10706) with unanimous bipartisan support in June. The bill, sponsored by Senator John DeFrancisco and Assembly Member Pat Fahy, would have empowered the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services – which monitors and assists counties with public defense services – to establish and uphold strong standards to ensure that poor people accused of crimes receive effective legal representation. These included the promise of representation at the first court appearance; limits on the caseloads public defenders can carry; proper training, supervision, and support staff for attorneys; and access to resources needed to mount an effective defense. It would have required the state to fund public defense services and relieve New York’s 62 counties of their financial burden over the course of a seven-year phase-in period.
The legislation arose in response to class-action litigation brought against New York State by the NYCLU and Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. The lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. New York, charged that New York state’s understaffed, poorly resourced and largely dysfunctional public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York. The Cuomo administration failed to undertake serious reforms in response to the litigation until the state entered into a settlement agreement on the eve of trial, in October 2014. The settlement mandates reform of public defense services in five New York counties named in the litigation (Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington).