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Another Voice: New York needs real reforms in public defense

By Mark Williams and Norman Effman

As the New York State budget comes to a close, our elected officials run the risk of squandering a major opportunity to truly reform public defense around the state. Despite more than 50 years of a constitutional requirement to provide an attorney for New Yorkers who can’t afford one, defendants in too many counties still face court hearings without an attorney. And because of New York’s patchwork funding system, local taxpayers bear the brunt of paying for this inadequate system.

The average upstate public defender still has hundreds more cases than independent legal experts recommend.  Running from case to case and meeting to meeting means they can’t offer as much legal counsel as they’d like.  We do our best for our clients, don’t get us wrong. But many upstate public defense attorneys just don’t have the resources – time or money – to adequately represent them.

For example, if you watch any legal drama, you know how important investigators are to developing a strong defense. But in most upstate counties, such as Erie County’s Assigned Counsel Program, we don’t have the funds to hire investigators to prove alibis or offer new theories of the case.

Several years ago, the state settled the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit – offering a clear path to improving public defense in five counties. Last year, the Legislature unanimously passed the bipartisan Justice Equality Act to ensure that everyone has access to an attorney throughout the legal process, without burdening local taxpayers.

Unfortunately, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed the bill late, and has proposed an inadequate solution. He offers significantly less funding than is necessary with no relief for local taxpayers. Our clients would still be at a disadvantage as they face the justice system.

His proposal also reduces the independence of the legal profession by having the political Division of the Budget oversee implementation of quality improvement plans. National legal groups like the American Bar Association have written the governor citing national principles requiring him to provide independent oversight. New York already has the highly regarded Office of Indigent Legal Services providing oversight of public defense programs, and working to improve programs so defendants have access to the best defense possible.

Justice should not depend on where you live or the court in which you appear. The state funds all aspects of the judiciary system, and it should also be funding mandated public defense programs, including our offices, in all 62 counties in the state.

The governor’s budget proposal continues to ignore the state’s constitutional obligation to fund the basic costs of public defense services. The Legislature and governor should pass a budget this month that includes the key elements of the Justice Equality Act.

Mark Williams is Cattaraugus County chief public defender. Norman Effman is director of the Wyoming County-Attica Legal Aid Bureau and Wyoming County public defender, and has served on the state Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section Executive Committee since 1982.

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