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NYCLU: Governor Must Strengthen His Public Defense Reform Efforts

The New York Civil Liberties Union submitted testimony today raising concerns about Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to reform public defense in New York State. The NYCLU’s statement was delivered to the joint legislative budget committee on the same day that protesters were arrested after blocking the doors to Cuomo’s office at the Capitol during a demonstration over funding for indigent legal services.

“We were deeply disappointed when the governor vetoed the bipartisan public defense reform bill, which was passed without a single negative vote,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney, Mariko Hirose. “We ask legislators and the governor for their support in the fight to create a fairer and more effective public defense system. The failure of public defense services in New York is systemic – and the remedy must be as well.”

Last year, Cuomo vetoed a bill passed unanimously by the legislature that would have required the state to fund public defense services statewide. The bill was based on the settlement of the NYCLU’s lawsuit Hurrell-Harring v. New York. In its testimony, the NYCLU commends Cuomo for his continued commitment to implementing the terms of the settlement, which dramatically improved public defense services in five counties.

In the budget, the governor proposes his own version of public defense reform, but his proposal differs significantly from the legislation that passed last session. The governor’s budget bill does not require the state to fully fund public defense services statewide. His legislation would obligate the state to provide the resources necessary to implement the Hurrell-Harring reforms statewide, but would empower his Division of Budget to approve plans developed by the office of Indigent Legal Services that address what it will take to provide quality public defense in New York. That includes plans intended to ensure that a lawyer is present when an individual is arraigned; that public defense providers are subject to reasonable limits on caseloads and workloads; and that public defense offices have the capacity to train and supervise staff, conduct investigations, and utilize expert witnesses. These matters, the NYCLU argues, are uniquely within the expertise of the staff of the Office of Indigent Legal Services. Oversight of legal services is beyond the competence of DOB, and would undermine the independence necessary as regards both the delivery of public defense services and oversight of such services.

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