State takes steps toward public defense reform


While the recent effort to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 has finally put New York in the company of almost every other state, the budget deal that accomplished that goal included another criminal justice reform that could serve as inspiration for other states.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed to language in the budget that sets up reforms to the system that provides legal representation to the poor, an issue that much of the nation has struggled with since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 Gideon vs. Wainwright decision, which enshrined a constitutional right to an attorney for any criminal defendant.

Though the recent agreement fell short of the full state takeover of public criminal defense costs as called for in legislation approved by lawmakers but vetoed last year, advocates for indigent legal service reform view the final deal with optimism after decades of work.

“This step … (shows) a level of maturity for New York that has never been here before in governing on this issue,” said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association.

“Finally there is an executive commitment. Finally there is an independent state agency. Finally there is legislative appreciation … that this is a crisis,” he said.

Most significantly, language in the budget legislation calls for the state Office of Indigent Legal Services to develop plans by Dec. 1 to broadly ensure that criminal defendants are represented by public counsel if eligible, that public defenders — often short-staffed and burdened by heavy caseloads — receive relief and that the quality of public defense is improved. Similar reforms already are being implemented in five counties, including Washington County, under a 2014 settlement between the state, the New York Civil Liberties Union and a Manhattan law firm.

“These reforms are going to be put New York right at the forefront of getting Gideon right,” said William Leahy, director of the state Office of Indigent Legal Services.

The budget legislation also requires the state to begin shouldering what has been seen as an unfunded mandate on counties, which pick up the tab for public defense costs within their borders. The state will provide up to $250 million over five years to pay for implementation of the reforms.

The funding, however, will be made as reimbursements. At the same time, counties will continue to cover the base-level public defense costs they already pay for. Those costs are estimated to be more than $400 million statewide annually.

“I strongly believe that the state needs to go even further and take over paying for Indigent Legal Services completely … and that the state’s obligation is not funded by county property taxpayers,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, who helped lead the local charge on reforms.

Elsewhere around the nation, funding reforms for indigent legal services tend to be more the exception than the…

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