Testimony: New York State Commission On The Future Of Indigent Defense Services
Testimony Of Barrie Gewanter, Director Of The Central New York Chapter Of The New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York State Commission On The Future Of Indigent Defense Services Regarding The Need For Indigent Defense Reform In New York State My name is Barrie Gewanter. I am the Director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The NYCLU is the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. From a regional office in Syracuse, the Central New York Chapter serves seventeen counties extending north to the Canada, South to the Pennsylvania border, west to Auburn and east to Utica and Rome. The mission of the NYCLU is to protect and defend the rights and liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights and the United States and New York State constitutions. Accordingly, we are deeply concerned about the provision of adequate legal representation for criminal defendants who “cannot afford an attorney,” as required under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Federal Constitution and Article 1, Section 6 of the New York State Constitution. As you know from testimony delivered to this Commission in New York City on February 11, 2005 by NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman and ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Vince Warren, and then on March 11, 2005 by Barbara Williams DeLeeuw, Director of our Genesee Valley Chapter Office, the NYCLU is deeply concerned about a system of indigent defense services in New York State that is broken and in need of careful repair. It is our contention that there are serious and systemic deficiencies in indigent defense services throughout the State, with little consistency, no accountability, and no real guarantee of fundamental fairness. Poor defendants frequently languish in jail because of inadequate representation, without lawyers who act as adversarial checks upon the prosecution these indigent defendants are often coerced to plead guilty and are sometimes tried and convicted for crimes they did not commit. Longstanding & persistent problems of inadequate and ineffective representation For the past year and a half, the NYCLU has been conducting investigations of public defense systems in selected counties. As the Director of our Syracuse office, I have been involved in our examination of related issues in Onondaga County. I will speak today mainly of concerns identified in that county through interviews with local lawyers, judges, civil liberties advocates, and a few referred defendants. Although our investigations are not complete, we have already seen troubling indications of inadequate and ineffective representation including:
- lack of assigned attorney contact with clients before and after key steps in the legal process, including: failure to visit clients in jail, repeated failure to accept or return client phone calls, failure to respond to client letters, failure to engage in meaningful communication with clients prior to scheduled court proceedings
- lack of timely action by assigned attorneys on behalf of their clients, including: repeated postponements and failures to appear in court, which can and has resulted in additional and unnecessary weeks or months of pre-trial detention,
- failure of assigned attorneys to investigate the circumstances of an alleged crime including exculpatory information, or to pursue any legal options beyond the unquestioned acceptance of a plea deal offered by the prosecution,
- failure of assigned attorneys to present mitigating evidence that might encourage a reduced sentence, or to pursue the potential for sentencing alternatives - even when free services are available to investigate and present such alternatives.
- actions taken by attorneys on behalf of clients without consultation or consent, including waiving preliminary hearings and engaging in plea negotiations against the client’s wishes,