ALBANY, NY (06/20/2016)(readMedia)-- "Thanks to bipartisan support, New York has taken a step toward long-needed reform. When the Governor signs this bill, the State will move closer to fully meeting its constitutional and moral duty to ensure that effective public defense representation is provided in every court around New York State. That's how Jonathan E. Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA), reacted to passage of legislation requiring incremental reimbursement to counties for the cost of providing mandated representation.
NYSDA has long advocated for statewide reform. Its efforts, with others, helped bring into being the Indigent Legal Services (ILS) Board and ILS Office in 2010. "But this is something new," Gradess commented. "We've seen a county-led effort for this legislation from the beginning."
Fueled by the settlement in late 2014 of a lawsuit filed against the State by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in 2007, counties statewide demanded that the Legislature take action. The settlement provided an infusion of state funds in only five counties, because they had been used by the NYCLU as examples of the State's failure to provide constitutional representation and a judge added them as defendants. That set up a "five down, fifty-seven to go" situation, as NYSDA noted at the time.
"St. Lawrence County is pleased that the New York State Legislature has heard the call to alleviate the burden of unfunded mandates and ensure the protection guaranteed in the Constitution that the accused shall enjoy the right to counsel, funded appropriately and equitably," County Attorney Stephen D. Button said about the bill. Button, a former public defender, has worked hard to bring fiscal relief to counties and justice to clients. He credited many with passage of the historic measure, citing "the leadership shown by Senator John DeFrancisco, Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, Senator Patty Ritchie, Senator Joe Griffo, NYSDA Executive Director Jonathan Gradess, New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Steve Acquario and many others."
NYSDA congratulates all those who worked to bring this legislation into being. "We look forward to working with the State, with counties, with lawyers, and with the client community going forward," Gradess stated. "Without funding, effective representation is impossible. But funding alone is not the answer – oversight and a client-centered approach are also vital. We are eager to see all those components put to work."
NYSDA offers training, legal research, and other assistance to public defense lawyers across the state. In doing so, it hears a litany of ways that public defense lawyers are unable to give their clients the effective representation every lawyer is ethically bound to provide. "They have too many cases. Too few resources. Unique problems in every county – but some major problems in every county," Gradess said. "Now, that should change."