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Now With Bipartisan Support, Statewide Public Defense Bill is NY’s 2016 Priority

In a joint press conference today with State Assemblymember Patricia A. Fahy, State Senator and Deputy Majority leader John A. DeFrancisco announced his support of legislation that would reform public defense services across the state. This historic bill was first introduced by Assemblymember Fahy in 2014, after the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State entered into a settlement agreement requiring the state to improve public defense for people too poor to hire an attorney in five counties named in the lawsuit. By putting his name on this bill, Senator DeFrancisco gives the initiative for statewide public defense bipartisan sponsorship.

“With this legislation, Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblymember Fahy have created a historic opportunity to repair New York’s broken public defense system,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry. “For 50 years New York neglected to provide poor New Yorkers with their constitutional right to an attorney — destroying lives, depleting county resources and driving mass incarceration. This is no longer acceptable: It’s time that New York upholds fairness and justice for all.”

For the past 50 years, New York has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to provide public defense for people too poor to afford an attorney, resulting in a patchwork of county-funded programs which are for the most part dysfunctional and underfunded. Public defense attorneys carry as much as five times the maximum number of cases recommended by the American Bar Association. As a result, poor New Yorkers are often forced to appear in court with little or even no legal assistance and face excessively high bails and long prison sentences for little more than misdemeanors or petty crimes.

In October of 2014, the NYCLU reached an unprecedented settlement with New York State in the lawsuit Hurrell-Harring v. New York, with the state agreeing to authorize the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services to fund and monitor major reforms in public defense in Onondaga (Syracuse), Suffolk, Ontario, Schuyler and Washington counties.

The legislation introduced by Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblymember Fahy will extend public defense reform beyond the five counties named in the Hurrell-Harring settlement to include all counties in the state. There is broad support for the bill among county officials, and at least 14 New York counties have formally passed resolutions calling on the state to assume its constitutional obligation to fund public defense services.

The legislation (S-6341/A-6202B) will transfer the responsibility for funding of public defense from the counties to the state over a four year period, with the state responsible for 25 percent of those costs in year one, and 100 percent in year four. The bill authorizes the Office of Indigent Legal Services to establish and uphold public defense standards that:

  • Ensure that every criminal defendant will have a lawyer at the first court appearance (arraignment), when bail often is set and pleas are taken
  • Require that people represented by public defenders receive quality legal representation, with investigators and resources as needed
  • Limit caseloads so that public defense lawyers have sufficient time to provide their clients with an effective defense
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