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New York State Must Reform Indigent Defense Or Face Lawsuit, NYCLU Says

The New York Civil Liberties Union today urged New York State to fix its broken systems for providing indigent defense services, announcing that absent swift and systemic state action the NYCLU will force the issue by filing a lawsuit.

“The clock has run out,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. “The time for reform is now, as the Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services confirms what advocates have known for years: that New York State fails to assign and compensate competent defense lawyers to represent people who cannot pay for the representation to which they are constitutionally entitled.”

The NYCLU’s final warning to the state comes as the Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services releases a report this morning documenting New York State’s failure to provide consistent and competent indigent defense.

“Because we have no statewide standards for providing indigent defense services, every town in New York State does it differently,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Jeffrey E. Fogel. “Whether you receive justice depends on where you live and whether you can afford a lawyer. If the governor and the legislature fail to solve these problems immediately, we’ll ask the courts to compel them to do so.”

The Commission report affirms that there is “a crisis in the delivery of defense services to the indigent throughout New York State and that the right to the effective assistance of counsel, guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions, is not being provided to a large portion of those who are entitled to it.” The Commission attributes this failure to the absence of an independent statewide oversight mechanism that would set standards and ensure accountability in the provision of indigent defense, and to the state’s refusal to fund existing services adequately.

“The crisis in indigent representation in this state is a well documented fact,” the report concludes. “The time for action is now.”

For three years the NYCLU has been investigating public defense systems in New York. The organization’s studies of several upstate counties have revealed a pattern of serious deficiencies in the quality of representation provided to indigent defendants. Lawyers carry unmanageable caseloads. They have inadequate access to investigators and other necessary support resources, little contact with clients, and insufficient training, supervision and oversight.

Today’s report affirms that these problems are state-wide and require prompt systemic reforms, including an infusion of state funding. If the state fails to act promptly and comprehensively to solve New York State’s indigent defense problems the NYCLU will seek judicial relief to vindicate the rights of indigent defendants.

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