Fully Funding Public Defense: A Great Way to Celebrate Gideon and Hurrell-Harring

ALBANY, NY (03/18/2015)(readMedia)-- "We are celebrating Gideon Day 2015 and the Hurrell-Harring settlement by continuing to press the State to properly fund public defense services," said Jonathan E. Gradess on March 18. That date marks the fifty-second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's right-to-counsel decision in Gideon v Wainwright. As Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA), Gradess has led many observances of Gideon Day, some filled with public displays and others, like this year's, spent more quietly pursuing the same goal. That goal is to ensure a vibrant right to counsel that in turn protects the other rights that define our system of law.

"By 'properly fund public defense,' we mean that the amount must be sufficient and the funding must come with oversight that assures the money is spent to provide quality legal services to those who can't afford counsel," Gradess said. "And full funding for the Indigent Legal Services Office is a big part of that," he added.

The Indigent Legal Services (ILS) Office, created by the State in 2010, will oversee the settlement of Hurrell-Harring v State of New York, the class action suit filed in 2007 assessing constitutional deficiencies in the State's public defense system. Because the suit used five counties as exemplars of state-wide problems, those five counties were joined in the suit as defendants. The settlement requires the State to provide funding to improve their public defense services.

"Five down, 57 to go," Gradess has been saying since the settlement was first announced back in October 2014. Other counties are demanding that their public defense systems not be ignored any longer, as noted in media coverage including a March 18 article in the Register-Star.

NYSDA reminds the Legislature and the Governor that the ILS Office has many statutorily-imposed duties besides its new Hurrell-Harring responsibilities. Therefore, the State must increase funding for the ILS Office beyond what the settlement requires. Other state funding is also needed, including full funding of NYSDA's Public Defense Backup Center; it provides public defense lawyers and programs with training, research, and other services, gives technical assistance to counties struggling to meet the still-underfunded public defense mandate imposed on them by the State, and administers the statewide Veterans Defense Program.