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Lawmakers Pass Major Statewide Reforms of Public Defense System

Fix NY's Broken Public Defense System

Lawmakers last night passed budget legislation that commits New York State to systemic reform of public defense services. The bill creates a roadmap for establishing and upholding statewide standards for effective legal representation of New Yorkers charged with crimes who are unable to pay for a private attorney.  

The new law authorizes the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services to establish and uphold standards that address the presence of counsel at a criminal defendant’s first court appearance; reasonable 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. While the legislation leaves responsibility for funding public defense operations with New York’s counties, the state will reimburse counties and cities for the cost of complying with these new standards.

“With this legislation, New York is making clear that everyone has the right to justice under the law, not only those who can afford an attorney,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This reform goes a long way toward making sure poor defendants don’t have to navigate the justice system alone.”

Today’s reforms arose in response to a settlement between the NYCLU, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP and New York State in the lawsuit Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York. The settlement mandates reform of public defense services in Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties. The settlement inspired a bipartisan movement for reform last year, but resulted in a New Year’s Eve veto by Gov. Cuomo. That legislation, passed unanimously by the Assembly and the Senate last year, would have required the state to fund all public defense services. When he vetoed the bill, Gov. Cuomo said such a proposal should be taken up during budget negotiations.

Though 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, New York State has left this responsibility to its counties. This patchwork system has led to under-resourced and under-funded public defense programs. As a result, poor New Yorkers charged with crimes often can meet with a lawyer for only minutes, and appear in court without a lawyer or with a lawyer who is unprepared. They receive excessively high bail offers, unfair plea deals, unwarranted pre-trial detention, harsh sentences for low-level misdemeanors and petty offenses. Some plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

“It is now more than fifty years since the Supreme Court ruled, in Gideon v. Wainright, that it is the government’s constitutional obligation to uphold the right to counsel in criminal prosecutions,” said Robert Perry, legislative director for the NYCLU. “With this legislation, New York makes a major commitment to fulfilling the promise of Gideon.”

The budget bill also addresses two other important criminal justice reform provisions, “Raise the Age” and wrongful convictions. It raises the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 for non-violent crimes and requires that police interrogations for certain violent crimes be videotaped. Though this reform reflects compromise, it represents an important first step toward removing all juveniles from the adult criminal justice system. The bill also reforms error-prone procedures by which suspects are identified by witnesses in police lineups.

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