NY Counties & State Associations Gather Supporting State Assumption of Indigent Defense Expenses

ALBANY, NY (09/29/2015)(readMedia)-- More than 45 counties and several statewide organizations are set to descend upon the city of Syracuse for a one day event on October 5th, 2015 aimed at supporting legislation that would see the state of New York assume the financial burden associated with providing indigent defense. The meeting, organized by St. Lawrence County, calls for support of Assemblywoman Pat Fahy's (Albany - 109th Assembly District) bill A6202-A, entitled "An act to amend the county law and the executive law, in relation to indigent defense services." The main provision of the legislation would see the State of New York assume responsibility for reimbursing counties for all expenses paid in relation to the delivery of indigent defense services.

Since Gideon v. Wainwright was decided in 1963 by the U.S. Supreme Court, all states have been obligated to provide a plan for representation of indigent populations in both criminal courts and family courts. In New York State, a plan was adopted requiring the counties to provide the services and fund the programs.

"Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision to guarantee access to legal representation for all, however, the State of New York passed this responsibility on to the counties, where representation has been inequitable and dependent on a particular county's ability or inability to properly finance and administer legal assistance. Our counties and local municipalities have shouldered the burdens of the cost associated with the delivery of indigent defense services for more than 50 years, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court identified it as state obligation. It is time for the state to assist these localities while providing legal representation in a more just and equitable manner. The cost-savings is expected to be considerable in that pre-trial incarceration is reduced and will save in jail costs," said Assemblymember Patricia A. Fahy (D-Albany).

St. Lawrence County, the primary sponsor of the event, was recently identified by the State Comptroller DiNapoli's Office as under significant fiscal stress. "Our county remains besieged by unfunded mandates, thrust upon us by the State of New York," St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators Chair Joseph Lightfoot stated. "We have previously gone on record as stating that this should be a state expense. To continue to force this on the counties will result in a patchwork quilt of solutions across the state, funded by increases in property taxes at the local level. The citizens of our county, and this state, cannot afford to continue to balance the budget of the state through increased local property taxes."

The Fahy bill was, in part, drafted by former Judge Larry Rosen, current Albany County Assigned Counsel Administrator. When asked for comment, Mr. Rosen noted, that it is "...more than one-half century after Gideon and the spirit of first-rate representation of indigents has not been fully realized in our great State of New York. It is time to deliver on Gideon by an equitable sharing of such costs amongst ALL our Counties accomplished by the State assuming all associated costs. The continued economic strangling of certain Counties must end....."

St. Lawrence County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle appreciated the support from around the state and the efforts put forward by Assemblywoman Fahy. "The situation we face in St. Lawrence County is similarly faced by many of the counties in the state. Assemblywoman Fahy's efforts represent an effective start to addressing the unfunded mandate problem that plagues our communities and threatens their long-term economic viability."

In 2014, a lawsuit alleging that New York State has been derelict in its responsibilities for funding indigent defense appropriately resulted in a settlement between the plaintiffs, the State of New York and the five named counties (Schuyler, Washington, Ontario, Onondaga and Suffolk). Terms of the settlement outlined an increase in funding from the State of New York for the five counties but stagnant growth for the remaining 57 counties. Recognizing the disparity between the counties, growing calls for reform have resulted in a coalition developing with the meeting in Syracuse being called to show a shared resolve.

When asked about the upcoming meeting, New York State Defenders Association Executive Director Jonathan Gradess said, "This is a great watershed moment for the state of New York. Collegially, with all the counties in the state, with the settlement counties specifically, with the plaintiffs and NYSDA and chief defenders and ILS and NYSAC, the Legislature and Governor can build a new public defense system that raises all boats, over time, in a reasonable and deliberative process."

Event coordinator St. Lawrence County Attorney, and former Public Defender, Stephen Button echoed the sentiments of Director Gradess. "With the help of Assemblywoman Fahy, Mr. Stephen Acquario at NYSAC, Mr. Jonathan Gradess at NYSDA, Mr. Tim Donaher at the Chief Defender's Association, Mr. Tom Miner at the County Attorney's Association and the majority of the counties of this great state, we have an opportunity to address an ever growing unfunded mandate by alleviating the burdens borne by our various counties and simultaneously ensuring the constitutional rights of counsel to all New York state citizens. This is a win for all involved."

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the landscape of American jurisprudence, by ruling that the right of all individuals to counsel shall not be abridged. On June 30, 1965, C.L. Chamberlain the executive director of NYSAC [then the County Officers Association] by letter to Governor Rockefeller's counsel opposed the offloading of the State's Gideon right-to-counsel responsibility to counties, stating "If this bill is needed, let the state pay the cost but not escape payment by mandating the same on local government."

The Hurrell-Harring lawsuit was filed against the State on the ground that the State's system was unconstitutional. Proponents of the Fahy bill hold that the State should at long last establish a fully and adequately state-funded public defense reimbursement system.

In this way justice and true fiscal equity rather than piecemeal reform can be the fruit borne by the current settlement of the class action lawsuit.