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NYCLU Threatens To Sue Over Poor Services For State’s Poor

At the first hearing before a commission looking into defense services for poor people, the New York Civil Liberties Union threatened to file suit to end the abysmal state of legal defense services in the state. Executive Director Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU applauded Chief Judge Judith Kaye for creating the Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services, but warned that if the state failed to meet the promise of fairness and justice articulated in its constitutional charter, the NYCLU would take legal action.

Said Donna Lieberman: “Our concern is that without a commitment on the part of the governor and the legislature to remedy the shameful state of legal representation in matters involving indigent defendants, Chief Judge Kaye’s initiative will remain merely aspirational.”

Beginning in 2003, the NYCLU has examined and monitored public defense systems in various New York Counties. The investigation has been based on complaints and reports of various deficiencies in providing legal services throughout the state to criminal defendants who are poor. The NYCLU work includes ongoing investigations of public defense systems in Albany, Onondaga and Schenectady counties and has discovered public defense providers are under-funded, under-staffed and under-resourced.

As a result of these deficiencies, indigent defendants suffer substantial harm in their constitutional rights by being assigned attorneys who do not provide adversarial checks upon the prosecution; who fail to visit them in jail for weeks or even months at a time, including prior to court appearances; and fail to conduct proper investigations or submit crucial pretrial motions. Often these defendants waive their rights to trial and other due process protections because they don’t fully understand what it means to waive those rights.

One example cited by the NYCLU testimony: A man was pressured by his public defense attorney and by the judge and prosecutor to accept a plea bargain even though he insisted on his innocence. The plea deal provided that charges pending against the man in another matter would be dropped if he accepted the plea. He was urged to accept the deal requiring one year incarceration to eliminate the risk of a seven-year sentence. After sitting in jail for six weeks, a jail deputy discovered that the charges involved in the other matter had been adjourned in contemplation of dismissal (ACD) and that the man should have been released weeks prior. Had the man known those charges had been adjourned he never would have accepted the plea deal, but would have requested a trial because he knew he was innocent. The judge refused to let him out of the plea deal even after this additional information was revealed. The man’s attorney insisted that it was a good deal.

The NYCLU is wary about what work the Commission will actually perform and how long it will take to complete its findings. The Commission began its work 9 months after its creation and does not have funding to fully carry out its mission. The NYCLU urged its members to work with it and other civil rights organizations committed to real reform of statewide indigent defense.

In addition, the NYCLU warned that if the state fails to act to ensure that New York’s legal system is true to the promise of fairness and justice as articulated by the constitutional charter, the organization is prepared to seek judicial relief to vindicate the rights of indigent defendants.

Click here to read the NYCLU’s testimony.

More testimony from the NYCLU Genesee Valley Chapter.

More testimony from the NYCLU Central NY Chapter

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