Indigent Defense Reform
By ANNA GRONEWOLD, Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Help may be on the way for New York’s overburdened defense system for the poor that has gained national attention for caseloads so extreme and local funding so inadequate that some defendants got limited representation or none at all.
Lawmakers this month approved New York’s first-ever statewide limits on the number of cases public defenders can take on. They also approved state reimbursements for counties to pay for legal services for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own.
New York City and 57 counties currently pay most costs for their staff and contract public defenders with some state support, leaving a patchy system where services vary depending on how much tax revenue local communities generate.
This year’s statewide relief is a victory for advocates such as New York Civil Liberties Union, which launched a campaign video titled #LostInTheSystem with actor Jeffrey Wright calling lawmakers to funnel resources to struggling county public defense systems.
Wright, best known for his roles in HBO’s WestWorld and recent James Bond films, said he joined the campaign after spending six weeks with inmates at maximum security Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana while shooting a film.
Wright, who lives in New York City, said conversations with prisoners who worked on the set of the film “sensitized him” to the idea that those who can’t afford a lawyer are at severe disadvantages when the state is not investing in its public defense services.
“The discrepancy between the ways in which the justice system works for those who have resources and those who don’t is pretty stark,” Wright said. “If there’s a measure that can be taken by the state to ensure more level playing field, it only seems right.”
The state will now reimburse all 62 counties for improvements in indigent defense coverage based on plans developed by the independent Indigent Legal Services office. Officials estimate the state will pay out $250 million annually by 2023.
“As far as the first step, we couldn’t be more satisfied,” said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. “One of the ways in which you bring fairness to the system is equality, and I think the legislature and governor have realized that … finally.”
The reform is an expansion of a 2014 settlement with five counties with such inadequate resources the state was accused of violating its constitutional duty to provide a lawyer to every person charged with a crime. Many poor defendants languished in jail and lost jobs, homes and families, while their public defenders faced overwhelming caseloads.
Gradess said the reforms also require the Indigent Legal Services office to craft reasonable caseload standards for county defenders. National recommendations typically recommend no more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors per lawyer per year.
Many details about what will happen when caseloads are exceeded still are murky, leaving questions about whether staff will be hired or cases will be turned down, said Monroe County Special Assistant Public Defender Andre Vitale. But defenders in his office, who are often given dozens or even hundreds more cases than they can handle well, are cautiously hopeful the new laws will be the beginning of broader justice reforms to the system, Vitale said.
“Will they say ‘OK, we’ve done what we need for indigent defense, we can move on,’ or will this be the beginning of a process?” he said.