Justice Fund's Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission Decries Cuts to New Public Defense Office

Cuts threaten to "Gut Reform Before it Begins"

ALBANY, NY (03/28/2011)(readMedia)-- The just-announced State budget deal cuts funding for the Office of Indigent Legal Services in half. That office, created just last June to begin reforming New York State's long-broken public defense system, had not yet fully opened its doors when the Senate called for its elimination. Then budget negotiators succumbed to the Senate's demand.

"This ill advised compromise cut threatens to gut reform before it begins," lamented Edward Nowak, Chair of the Board of the Justice Fund. "The injustices resulting from New York State's failure to fulfill its duty to provide adequate representation to people charged with crime or threatened with loss of their children have gone on too long," he added.

New York State delegates to localities its responsibility for providing legal representation to people charged with crimes and threatened with the loss of parental rights. The quality of representation varies greatly across the state and underfunding has led to excessive caseloads, a lack of investigation, underutilization of experts and a high plea rate.

"Last year, New York State took an important step toward reform by creating the Indigent Legal Services (ILS) Office and its Board," said Jonathan E. Gradess, Campaign Manager of the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission. "The ILS Office has been given the authority to thoroughly look at how counties provide public defense, and recommend ways for state funding to be used to improve services," Gradess noted. The ILS Board, designed to be independent from partisan politics, looks at the recommendations of the Office and makes a final determination about the best use of state public defense funding. "But if the Office doesn't have the money needed to collect and analyze information about how things are done now, it can't oversee the spending of state money or make informed recommendations about its use."

"Cutting the budget of the ILS Office, which only got a Director last month, is a step backward," said John Marshall, a Long Island lawyer and individual member of the Campaign. He added, "what we really need is for the State to acknowledge its constitutional responsibility to provide public defense services and end the mandate it placed on localities over 45 years ago, another mandate decried by all local officeholders, regardless of party or political persuasion; what we don't need is to lose reform before it gets off the ground."

A project of the Justice Fund, the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission has been advocating for public defense reform since 2006.