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Historic Public Defense Reform Passes in New York

In the final hours of the 2016 legislative session lawmakers passed historic legislation that promises to fundamentally reform the state’s public defense system. Provided the governor signs the bill (S.8114/A.10706) into law, the state will take responsibility for funding public defense for the first time since the Supreme Court held, more than fifty years ago, that the state must provide a lawyer to criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay for a private attorney. The New York Civil Liberties Union is among groups that have advocated for passage of the bill.

“This legislation commits New York State to systemic reform of the criminal justice system,” said Robert Perry, legislative director with the NYCLU. “The new law would commit the state to fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fund public defense services, and to providing effective legal representation to those facing criminal charges who cannot afford a lawyer.”

“This is a historic moment for equal justice,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “It is well documented in New York State that poor criminal defendants are routinely denied effective legal representation. Today the state’s lawmakers demonstrated their commitment to justice for all.”

In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 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 the counties, creating a patchwork of public defense programs which are under-resourced and underfunded. As a result, poor New Yorkers who are charged with crimes often appear in court without a lawyer or with a lawyer who is unprepared; as a consequence they receive excessively high bail offers; plea deals that are unfair; unwarranted pre-trial detention; and harsh sentences for low-level misdemeanors and petty offenses.

The bill, sponsored by Senator John DeFrancisco and Assembly Member Pat Fahy, transfers responsibility for funding public defense from the counties to the state over a seven-year period. It authorizes the Office of Indigent Legal Services to establish and uphold standards to ensure that poor people accused of crimes receive effective legal representation.

This legislation is a response to a 2014 settlement between the NYCLU, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP and New York state in the lawsuit Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, which mandates reform of public defense services in five New York counties named in the lawsuit. The legislation passed today, which is yet to be signed into law by Governor Cuomo, would extend public defense reforms to all counties in the state.

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