By Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes
The New York State Senate and Assembly unanimously passed a bill in June that I urge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign into law. The bill requires the state to reimburse counties for the cost of providing constitutionally and statutorily mandated legal services. Over a period of seven years, the state would pay an increasing percentage until it takes over 100 percent of these expenses. This is a good thing for Erie County, for Buffalo, for all my constituents and for justice.
Like other members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, I hear many stories of injustice. I hear about police tactics like having individuals empty their pockets or purses during a stop, then, if marijuana turns up, charging them with the misdemeanor of possessing it in public rather than the low-level violation of simple possession.
I introduced a bill to seal the resulting criminal records; such records are a burden that has been disproportionately imposed on African-Americans and Latinos. But improper police actions and other systemic injustices need to be addressed at the front end, not just in damage control later.
Public defense lawyers should have resources and time to learn what happened to their clients, to effectively challenge insufficient complaints and indictments and illegally seized evidence, and to advocate zealously for a just outcome. A criminal record that keeps a person from getting student loans or from being accepted into a school, from getting housing or from getting a job hurts not just that person but the community. Homelessness, unemployment – these plague many parts of my district. Effective public defense that acts to check overcriminalization can’t alone cure such problems, but ineffective public defense certainly makes them worse.
I am not anti-police – my mother was one of the first black female police officers in Buffalo. Good public defense is not anti-victim. If a victim has made a mistake in identification – which has been proven to be more common than we would like – prosecution and conviction of the wrong person leaves the victim and community subject to further crimes by the actual criminal. An effective challenge to a bad lineup can refocus police investigation to get it right.
For our justice system to work, we need every part of it to work right. It must work right for every client. And that takes money. Providing mandated legal services is the state’s responsibility. Using state funds to pay for it, making quality representation uniformly available, is both practical and just.
The Buffalo News has editorialized about the importance of the bill now under review by the governor’s office. I urge the governor to sign A. 10706/S. 8114 when it reaches his desk.
Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, represents the 141st District in the State Assembly.