NYSAC: State Budget Should Assume Indigent Defense Costs

The New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) and its member counties are calling on the New York Legislature to include budget language that would allow for a phased in state takeover of the costs of indigent legal defense services. Indigent legal defense services is one of the nine state mandated programs that consume 99 percent of county property taxes levied statewide.

NYSAC is asking state lawmakers to include language from a two-house bill (S.6341, DeFrancisco/A.6202B, Fahy) in the proposed budgets being developed by the Senate and Assembly this week. The measure would require the state reimburse mandated county costs for indigent defense services and improve indigent defense services for the poor.

“Our system of indigent defense is broken and it needs to be fixed. It makes common sense for the state to assume its responsibility for funding legal defense of the poor,” said NYSAC President William E. Cherry, Schoharie County Treasurer. “This proposal, which has bipartisan support in both houses of the legislature, would reduce costs for local taxpayers and provide improved services for a population of New York who need proper and fair representation in the court of law.”

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court held in the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that all criminal defendants had the right to be represented by counsel regardless of their ability to afford an attorney. This constitutional mandate was then charged to all states to carry out and finance.

In New York, state leaders shifted this responsibility and cost to county governments, which resulted in an array of different indigent legal defense programs across the state. Last year, the state settled the lawsuit Hurrell Harring et al. v. the State of New York, which required the five counties named in the suit to expand indigent defense services, cap caseloads for public defenders and provide counsel for defendants on first arraignment.

“It’s only a matter of time, or another lawsuit, that will require the other 52 counties to expand their indigent defense services. Our proposal provides the state with an opportunity to phase in a takeover of these costs, before it is forced on us by the courts,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario.

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