March 7, 2016: New York State Bar Association Calls for State Funding and Oversight of Legal Services for Indigent Criminal Defendants
Association Seeks Action in 2016-17 State Budget
The State of New York, not county governments, should assume responsibility for providing adequate funding for the constitutionally-mandated legal services to poor people who are accused of crimes, says the New York State Bar Association.
“More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states have a constitutional obligation to provide an attorney to criminal defendants if they cannot afford one. New York needs to do more to protect the rights of criminal defendants,” said New York State Bar Association President David P. Miranda.
As the state faces a March 31 deadline for enactment of its 2016-17 budget, the State Bar Association urges the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to approve a measure requiring that the state government—rather than counties—cover the cost of providing criminal defense services to low-income people and ensuring the quality of mandated representation.
Senator John A. DeFrancisco and Assemblywoman Patricia A. Fahy are sponsoring a bill (S.6341 and A.6202-B) with those objectives. “The DeFrancisco-Fahy bill is an important step toward ensuring that criminal defendants are effectively represented by counsel,” said Miranda.
Background on County-based Legal Defense
After the court’s 1963 landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the State of New York mandated that counties and New York City fund criminal defense services for individuals who cannot afford to pay for them.
Since then, the county-based legal defense program has been criticized as inadequate. A 2006 report by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye’s Commission on the Future of Indigent Legal Services concluded there was “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 problems that existed throughout the system, the report said, included excessive caseloads for defense attorneys, the inability to hire full-time attorneys, lack of adequate support staff and lack of adequate training.
Citing that report, the State of New York was sued for failure to provide adequate legal defense for the poor in five counties. In October 2014, the day before Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York was to go to trial, the state settled, agreeing to pay for improvements in the five counties—Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.
Under the settlement, the state Office of Indigent Legal Services is to monitor legal services in the five counties and develop standards for caseloads and provision of legal services. The 2014 settlement applies only to the five counties.
The New York State Bar Association calls upon state leaders to include in the budget the fiscal relief for the remaining 52 counties in order for them to ensure that criminal defendants are effectively represented by counsel.
The 74,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen
Director, Media Services and Public Affairs