June 17, 2016

State Legislature Passes Measure to Address
Disparities in New York's Justice System

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Assemblymember Patricia Fahy today announced both houses of the Legislature have officially passed a measure that would ensure all New Yorkers have equal access to quality indigent legal services (A.10706, Fahy).

Under the proposal, the state would gradually take over full funding of indigent legal services programs by 2023 relieving counties of their financial obligation. By requiring the state to reimburse localities for these vital legal services programs, the legislation aims to ensure access to quality legal representation for all New Yorkers and lift an expensive unfunded mandate off the counties.

"This legislation guarantees quality legal representation regardless of where you live in New York State," said Speaker Heastie. "In addition to protecting the constitutional rights of New Yorkers, this bill represents tremendous financial relief for local governments across the state and will help lighten the heavy workload for many public defenders allowing them to offer the best legal representation possible."

Currently, each county in New York is responsible for funding legal services for persons charged with a crime and in various family court proceedings who are unable to afford counsel. However, the quality and effectiveness of the services varies from county to county often depending on the availability of funding.

"This was a landmark ruling more than half a century ago and this marks a tremendous chapter in moving New York forward in fully realizing this constitutional right here in the Empire State by providing equitable treatment for the accused and providing serious mandate relief for counties. A 2006 report chaired by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye labeled the state of public defense as an 'ongoing crisis.' This may also lead to cost savings if better legal representation leads to reduced pre-trial incarceration. When fully phased in, the legislation will relieve counties of hundreds of millions of dollars in mandate relief. Thanks to the many advocates - including Albany County - lawmakers, and more for their work on this decades-long issue," said Assemblymember Patricia Fahy.

"The passage of this legislation resolves an issue in our justice system that has long plagued New Yorkers and the state's counties," said Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, chair of the Codes Committee. "By allowing the state to take over indigent legal services funding, we can assure that New Yorkers will have access to high quality legal defense services regardless of their ability to pay."

"This legislation will help correct the disparities that exist in securing quality legal representation for those who need it most," said Assemblymember Helene Weinstein chair of the Judiciary Committee. "Every county will be much better positioned to provide adequate access to public defenders to ensure that the justice system is working for everyone."

"This bill is fundamental to raising the standards for our justice system in New York State," said Assemblymember Nick Perry, chairman of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Caucus. "By taking this burden off of counties, we can be sure we are offering New Yorkers quality legal representation that is more likely to fair and more truly represents the type of justice system New Yorkers deserve."

"This legislation commits New York State to systemic reform of the of the criminal justice system," said Robert Perry, legislative director at the NYCLU. "By its terms, the new law would commit the state to providing effective legal representation to persons facing criminal charges who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The bill promises to provide public defense services that are fairer and more accountable."

"It is the beginning of a new day in New York State for public defense services. NYSDA is grateful to Assemblywoman Pat Fahy and Senator John DeFrancisco and both houses of the legislature for helping to bring Gideon (the right to counsel) to maturity," said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New State Defenders Association.

"The Assembly's passage of legislation that reforms the state's indigent legal services program brings true mandate relief to counties and improves access to justice for all New Yorkers. We appreciate Assemblymember Patricia Fahy's perseverance and commitment to balancing the needs of counties from all regions of the state. Her work was instrumental in ensuring county needs were included in the final version of this legislation. This bill accomplishes three objectives. It provides real and meaningful mandate relief for counties and property taxpayers. It protects taxpayers from costly and unnecessary lawsuits against New York's public defense program. And it improves legal defense services for the poor in all counties in the state," said William E. Cherry, President, New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC).

"This groundbreaking legislation will help New York live up to the promise of fair representation of indigent defendants dictated in 1963 by the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright," said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. "I have been working with our state lawmakers and brought this to Assemblymember Pat Fahy to champion 17 months ago. Costs to counties to provide defense for the poor is escalating and this legislation provides a phased-in approach to fixing the state's fragmented system of justice. I commend our state legislators for helping us meet our longstanding obligation to protect the rights of all residents, regardless of income or social status."

"The State Bar Association has long supported legislation to require full state funding for and oversight of indigent criminal defense services. We are gratified that both houses have taken this critical step toward making this longstanding Association priority a reality," said Claire P. Gutekunst, president of the New York State Bar Association.

"St. Lawrence County is thankful for the leadership demonstrated by Assemblymember Patricia Fahy and our State Representatives in the Assembly on this important issue of unfunded mandate relief and social justice reform. For more than 50 years, New York State has forced the counties to shoulder the burden of this ever growing expense which has resulted in a patchwork quilt of indigent defense plans, woefully underfunded and inadequate in many areas of the State. By voting in favor of this measure, the New York State Assembly has sent a resounding message to the counties that it wishes to alleviate the financial burdens on property owners with respect to this mandate and assist the accused in ensuring compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution. The fact that it passed in the manner that it did is an indication of how serious the State appears to be taking the pleas of the county leadership, the pleas of president David Miranda and the New York State Bar Association, the repeated calls to action by Executive Director Steve Acquario and the New York State Association of Counties, the fervent advocacy of Executive Director Jonathan Gradess and the New York State Defender's Association, and many more. This is an issue that resonates across party lines and throughout the bicameral legislature as it contains a little bit for everyone. We are thankful for the mutual support of Senate bill co-sponsor Deputy Majority Leader Senator John DeFrancisco and the St. Lawrence County Senate members which include Senator Patty Ritchie, Senator Joe Griffo and Senator Betty Little," said Stephen Button, County Attorney, St. Lawrence County.