New York State has settled a lawsuit that accused it of systematically depriving poor criminal defendants of their right to counsel. And in doing so it has recognized, for the first time, that it is responsible for providing legal representation for those defendants, say state civil rights and indigent defense groups.
In a 50-year-old decision, the US Supreme Court said that states are obligated to provide attorneys for defendants who can't afford lawyers. But New York left it up to its counties to figure out how to provide that representation.
Seven years ago, the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the state, saying that New York's patchwork indigent defense system too often fails the people it is supposed to represent.
The settlement applies to five counties that were part of the NYCLU lawsuit: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk, and Washington. The state has agreed to provide sufficient funding for attorneys, investigators, and support staff for public defender offices in those counties.
The state will also create eligibility standards for defendants, set caseload standards, and ensure that defendants have lawyers at their first court appearances.
The NYCLU and indigent defense associations say that the settlement is good start, but that the state ultimately needs to make broader changes.
In particular, state officials need to devote more funding to public defenders in all counties so that the offices can provide the same level of representation across the board, says a statement from the Chief Defenders Association of New York, a statewide association of indigent defense agency heads
"It shouldn't take another lawsuit for the state to implement these improvements in the rest of the state," says Tim Donaher, Monroe County's public defender and president of the Chief Defenders Association of New York.