(NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

The state Legislature unanimously passed a bill in June requiring the state to reimburse localities for the cost of providing mandated legal services; this addresses a multi-faceted problem dating back to 1965. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has many reasons to sign A10706/S 8114, and I urge him to do so. Fairness and justice are at the heart of this bill, the Public Defense Reform Act. The bipartisan, statewide support that it has garnered illustrates the many interests that it furthers.

The right to legal services, regardless of one’s ability to pay a lawyer, is crucial to the enforcement of many other rights. In 2015, the state settled a case brought on behalf of underserved clients in five counties across New York City, agreeing to provide state funding so public defense lawyers have adequate resources and requiring that every eligible client will have a lawyer at their first court appearance. The state also agreed to set caseload standards, including the sufficient hiring of lawyers and to create eligibility standards for representation.

The Public Defense Reform Act will expand this agreement statewide and ensure that all New Yorkers have access to quality legal representation from their first court appearance to their last. The bill also ensures accountability by having the state Office of Indigent Legal Services oversee the implementation of statewide quality standards and the state reimbursement process for county public defense programs.

As a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, I hear often from my constituents and others that their rights are ignored whenever they encounter our justice system, whether in the criminal or family law area. Communities of color have borne the brunt of mass incarceration that resulted from draconian drug laws and other destructive policies. Parents of color see their children taken away based on poverty and stereotypes. At the front end of the law enforcement system, news and social media reports of police killing unarmed black men and women have become so common that a national movement has arisen, but other injustices occur at the same point—racial profiling, illegal searches, and more. At every step, disproportionate numbers of people of color are denied their rights and liberty as implicit, and explicit, racial biases continue. This leads to a deep-rooted distrust of the system that harms us all.

Adequately funded and systemically honored public defense services can help address many of these problems. Lawyers with time and resources can truly represent their clients rather than merely participate in the processing that has become the norm—early guilty pleas without investigation; later guilty pleas brought on by unconscionable time spent in pretrial detention; guilty pleas by innocent people resulting from belief that their public defense lawyer doesn’t have time to prepare for trial. Resourced lawyers for parents can challenge the failure of the system to provide culturally competent assistance that would enable parents to meet their responsibilities rather than penalize them for being poor.

Currently, from metropolitan New York to Niagara Falls, people without the means to hire counsel often lack adequate legal assistance when arrested or confronting the removal of a child from the family. Since the current public defense statute, County Law 18-B, was passed in the wake of Gideon v Wainwright, counties and the city have struggled under the state’s delegation of its public defense responsibility. Over decades, inequities have been documented, most notably by the report a decade ago of a commission appointed by the late Chief Judge Judith Kaye. High poverty rates and low tax bases combine to prevent adequate funding. Local political patronage, hostility of elected officials to spending money for those despised by constituents with power, and other impediments to the independence of the defense function prevent delivery of quality legal services to those eligible. For these reasons, I said in 2013 that the 50th anniversary of the Gideon right to counsel decision was not a time for celebration, but rather a time “for remorse for all the individuals over the years who have been denied adequate representation.”

A lawsuit against the state for its public defense failures has brought the problem home. Five counties used by the plaintiffs as examples of statewide deficiencies were added as defendants at the state’s request. Last year a settlement containing conditions for improving public defense in those five counties was approved. This settlement, which Gov. Cuomo brought about, was an historic recognition of the state’s public defense obligation. But it was only a small step toward actually meeting that obligation statewide.

The Public Defense Reform Act is a giant step. Because it relieves an inequitable fiscal mandate on counties, because it will ensure quality public defense services in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and because justice requires it, the governor should sign A10706/ S8114.

The state Legislature unanimously passed a bill in June requiring the state to reimburse localities for the cost of providing mandated legal services; this addresses a multi-faceted problem dating back to 1965. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has many reasons to sign A10706/S 8114, and I urge him to do so. Fairness and justice are at the heart of this bill, the Public Defense Reform Act. The bipartisan, statewide support that it has garnered illustrates the many interests that it furthers.

The right to legal services, regardless of one’s ability to pay a lawyer, is crucial to the enforcement of many other rights. In 2015, the state settled a case brought on behalf of underserved clients in five counties across New York City, agreeing to provide state funding so public defense lawyers have adequate resources and requiring that every eligible client will have a lawyer at their first court appearance. The state also agreed to set caseload standards, including the sufficient hiring of lawyers and to create eligibility standards for representation.

The Public Defense Reform Act will expand this agreement statewide and ensure that all New Yorkers have access to quality legal representation from their first court appearance to their last. The bill also ensures accountability by having the state Office of Indigent Legal Services oversee the implementation of statewide quality standards and the state reimbursement process for county public defense programs.

As a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, I hear often from my constituents and others that their rights are ignored whenever they encounter our justice system, whether in the criminal or family law area. Communities of color have borne the brunt of mass incarceration that resulted from draconian drug laws and other destructive policies. Parents of color see their children taken away based on poverty and stereotypes. At the front end of the law enforcement system, news and social media reports of police killing unarmed black men and women have become so common that a national movement has arisen, but other injustices occur at the same point—racial profiling, illegal searches, and more. At every step, disproportionate numbers of people of color are denied their rights and liberty as implicit, and explicit, racial biases continue. This leads to a deep-rooted distrust of the system that harms us all.

Adequately funded and systemically honored public defense services can help address many of these problems. Lawyers with time and resources can truly represent their clients rather than merely participate in the processing that has become the norm—early guilty pleas without investigation; later guilty pleas brought on by unconscionable time spent in pretrial detention; guilty pleas by innocent people resulting from belief that their public defense lawyer doesn’t have time to prepare for trial. Resourced lawyers for parents can challenge the failure of the system to provide culturally competent assistance that would enable parents to meet their responsibilities rather than penalize them for being poor.

Currently, from metropolitan New York to Niagara Falls, people without the means to hire counsel often lack adequate legal assistance when arrested or confronting the removal of a child from the family. Since the current public defense statute, County Law 18-B, was passed in the wake of Gideon v Wainwright, counties and the city have struggled under the state’s delegation of its public defense responsibility. Over decades, inequities have been documented, most notably by the report a decade ago of a commission appointed by the late Chief Judge Judith Kaye. High poverty rates and low tax bases combine to prevent adequate funding. Local political patronage, hostility of elected officials to spending money for those despised by constituents with power, and other impediments to the independence of the defense function prevent delivery of quality legal services to those eligible. For these reasons, I said in 2013 that the 50th anniversary of the Gideon right to counsel decision was not a time for celebration, but rather a time “for remorse for all the individuals over the years who have been denied adequate representation.”

A lawsuit against the state for its public defense failures has brought the problem home. Five counties used by the plaintiffs as examples of statewide deficiencies were added as defendants at the state’s request. Last year a settlement containing conditions for improving public defense in those five counties was approved. This settlement, which Gov. Cuomo brought about, was an historic recognition of the state’s public defense obligation. But it was only a small step toward actually meeting that obligation statewide.

The Public Defense Reform Act is a giant step. Because it relieves an inequitable fiscal mandate on counties, because it will ensure quality public defense services in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and because justice requires it, the governor should sign A10706/ S8114.