Thursday, January 22, 2015

County Executive Daniel P. McCoy Calls On State to Take Over Funding of Indigent Legal Defense

Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy announced Thursday that he has had his staff prepare legislation and has asked Albany County’s state representatives to introduce same at requiring the state to pay the cost of legal representation for poor defendants. This would ensure that poor New Yorkers who cannot afford to mount a legal defense receive the best representation possible. 

“The state’s indigent legal defense system is broken,” said McCoy. “Public defenders are overburdened, face overwhelming caseloads and are provided inadequate resources to conduct investigations. It is well past time for the state to take over the full cost of indigent legal defense in order to reform the system, for all New Yorkers.”

"Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must provide lawyers to those who can’t afford it, and the State of New York implemented this by mandating counties to pay for these defense services but without providing the resources. A 2006 report chaired by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye labeled the state of public defense as an ‘ongoing crisis.' Phasing in state funding with strict standards and oversight is the best way to meet this need and provide equal access to legal representation for all New Yorkers, thereby reducing the burden carried by Albany County and counties across the state," said Assemblymember Patricia A. Fahy (D-Albany)

The legislation requires the state to reimburse counties and cities for the cost for providing legal representation to indigent defendants, authorizes the state Office of Indigent Legal Services to provide caseload relief for attorneys and to implement measures to improve the quality of representation. McCoy said this bill would bring meaningful reform to a patchwork system of justice in New York for those least able to afford a lawyer.       

The issue is timely due to the fact that in October 2014, the state settled a lawsuit filed against five New York counties. In the settlement the state acknowledged its responsibility and pledged aid and reforms for indigent defendants in those counties. While Albany County was not named in the suit, the County Executive determined that this issue needed a top to bottom review and brought on Judge Larry Rosen to serve as the county’s first Assigned Counsel Administrator to study the issue and provide potential solutions.

“Judge Rosen has taken on this challenge, made recommendations, and I have decided that in fairness to the interests of poor defendants and to provide high-quality defense equality throughout the state, this state takeover legislation is the answer,” said McCoy. “Rosen concluded a state takeover of funding of indigent legal services is needed now and should be implemented to help relieve the state-mandated costs for counties and more importantly to provide quality legal defense for those who stand accused of crimes.”

“It is said that justice is blind. This principle can only be sustained if all people, regardless of economic status, receive adequate legal representation. We must ensure that indigent defense is no longer treated as an unfunded mandate that the county must provide but rather one in which the state is fully prepared to support,” said Shawn Morse, Chairman of the Albany County Legislature.

“The county executive’s proposal has great promise,” said Majority Leader Frank Commisso. “The state already funds and operates the court system, by funding the indigent legal services, the state would have an opportunity to coordinate the services and administer them uniformly across the State.”

"This reform is an important social justice issue that will help the indigent get proper legal representation in court," Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said, "and will also help taxpayers in the City of Albany and throughout the entire county."

“Providing legal assistance to those deemed eligible by the Court costs taxpayers in Rensselaer County over $2 million a year. While I am proud of our ability to adhere to the mandates set forth by the state as to the level of legal service we must provide at the lowest cost possible it would be welcome relief if this mandated cost was lifted off the backs of our taxpayers.  Additionally, as the state seeks to expand the level and therefore cost of the legal service that must be provided I expect that the costs of these services will only become a greater burden in the future," stated Rensselaer County Executive Kathleen M. Jimino.

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