By signing a bill to have the state assume the costs of providing lawyers for poor people charged with crimes, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will relieve counties of an unfunded mandate while improving a program that currently offers uneven representation.
Cuomo has until Friday to sign or veto the bill, unanimously approved by the State Legislature. Proponents of the bill have said they believe the governor generally supports it, with some reservations. Those reservations could be dealt with this week if the Legislature returns for a special session.
Changes could involve the manner in which lawyers are assigned cases and rules on who is eligible to receive the free legal representation. Any tweaks in the legislation should keep the essence and intent intact.
As The News reported, the measure would save upstate counties at least $160 million annually after it is fully phased in over a seven-year period. In Erie County, legal services for poor people are costing taxpayers $12.2 million this year, according to the county executive. The state reimbursed the county for just $184,000.
Counties constrained under a 2 percent property tax cap struggle to fund the program. Following a 2014 settlement, the state agreed to provide more funding to five counties, and advocates say doing so has improved services.
The issue is also about caseload. Nearly 39,000 cases – from murder to petty crimes – involve the county-funded indigent legal services.
New York State Bar Association President Claire P. Gutekunst, in a statement posted on the organization’s website, urged the governor to sign the legislation, adding that it signals a “major advance” in providing quality legal representation.
County public defenders and staff get stretched thin as caseloads and expenses mount. New York counties have lobbied the state to take on those costs for more than half a century. The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright ordered states to provide legal services. But two years later the state made counties responsible for the expense. Statewide costs have now reached roughly $400 million annually.
The legislation is sponsored by Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, and Assemblywoman Patricia A. Fahy, an Albany Democrat. It passed both houses in June.
The governor should sign the bill, or one very similar, to relieve counties of one unfunded mandate and allow quality representation for those whose right it is under the United States and New York State constitutions.