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NEW YORK STATE — In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that everyone who was charged with a crime is entitled to an attorney, whether they could afford one or not. In New York State, the cost of providing that legal representation has fallen mostly to counties.
In 2014, the cost to provide indigent legal services in Sullivan County was about $1.62 million. The state kicked in about $151,000, or less than 10% of the cost, and the taxpayers of Sullivan County picked up the rest of the tab.
This has led to a system that is more comprehensive and well-funded in some counties, and not so great in others, with large disparities from one county to the next. In order to address these differences, lawmakers in Albany passed the Justice Equality Act in June.
The bill was sparked in part by a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union against five counties for underfunding the indigent defense programs and for failing to provide adequate defenses for suspects. The counties were Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington. Part of the settlement required the state provide more funding to those five counties, and it also put a ceiling on the number of cases a public defender could be assigned. The settlement also required the counties to provide legal representation for the accused at the first court appearance.
The bill, which would shift the entire cost of the program to the state, was passed unanimously by the Senate and the Assembly six months ago. Several county officials in the Hudson Valley held a news conference on December 12, to announce that the bill will soon be delivered to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and they urged him to sign it.
“This bill accomplishes three objectives. First, it provides real and meaningful mandate relief for counties and property taxpayers. Second, it protects taxpayers from costly and unnecessary lawsuits against New York’s public defense program. Third and final, the bill takes steps to improve legal defense services for the poor in all counties in the state,” said Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, president of the New York State County Executives Association.
“This bill will provide much-needed mandate relief for local governments and property taxpayers. It also ensures that legal defense services for low-income New Yorkers are as efficient and effective as possible,” said Bill Cherry, president of the New York State Association of Counties.
The county officials also noted that it will remove one of the many state mandates imposed by Albany on counties and take pressure off their budgets.
But it’s not certain whether Cuomo will sign the bill, veto it, or sign with conditions. Cuomo has been reluctant to sign legislation that increases spending without identifying the source of increased funding to pay for it.
Some analysts have estimated that the cost of the legislation once fully implemented would be about $450 million, up from the approximately $100 million the counties and state spend now.