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NYCLU, Actor Jeffrey Wright Launch Campaign to Reform New York’s Broken Public Defense System

Fix NY's Broken Public Defense System

The New York Civil Liberties Union today released a video narrated by award-winning actor, activist and New Yorker Jeffrey Wright calling on Governor Cuomo and legislators to overhaul and properly fund the state’s failing public defense system. New York state leaves responsibility for public defense to its counties, creating an underfunded, patchwork system in which poor New Yorkers accused of crimes often do not receive adequate legal representation, which the Constitution requires.

The new 60-second video, #LostInTheSystem, comes as the New York State legislature considers public defense within the state budget process, with a looming March 31 deadline.
“Governor Cuomo has called New York ‘the progressive capital of the nation,’ but across our state people lose their families, homes and jobs because they can’t afford private lawyers,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “With the Trump administration embracing so-called law-and-order policing, this is an injustice that only stands to get worse.”
The NYCLU has for more than a decade made reform of the state’s antiquated indigent defense system a top priority in criminal justice reform. In a major class action lawsuit in 2007, the NYCLU charged that the understaffed, poorly resourced and largely dysfunctional public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York. In one of his last acts in office, Attorney General Eric Holder submitted a statement of interest supporting the lawsuit, the first ever U.S. Department of Justice show of support in a state court proceeding on public defense. The pressure mounting, New York in 2014 agreed to a settlement on the eve of trial that brought sweeping public defense reforms to the five New York counties named in the litigation, Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.
The settlement laid the foundation for statewide reform, and last summer the state legislature passed unanimous bipartisan legislation to establish standards for effective counsel and to shift financial responsibility for services from counties to the state. Late on New Year’s Eve, however, Governor Cuomo vetoed the bipartisan bill. The budget process now is New York’s best chance to fix the state’s deeply flawed public defense system, ending the needless violation of countless New Yorkers’ basic rights.
“Everyone has the constitutional right to an attorney, but today, if you’re poor, that’s just not reality in New York state,” Wright says in the new NYCLU video. “People sit in jail for months, even years, without ever being convicted of a crime. It’s time to fix New York’s broken public defense system and pass the Justice Equality Act.”
The NYCLU is calling on the governor and legislature to establish and uphold basic standards to ensure that, rich or poor, all New Yorkers receive effective legal representation, including representation at the first court appearance; 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.
The NYCLU’s video, produced by ART NOT WAR, will be accompanied by a campaign highlighting the real stories of New Yorkers whose lives have been ruined because they were #LostInTheSystem without effective legal representation. To watch the video, read the stories or learn more about the push to reform New York’s broken public defense system, visit
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