2007-11-16 / Community

NYCLU: Public Defenders 'Not Effective'

New York State is failing in its constitutional duty to provide effective counsel to New Yorkers accused of crimes who cannot afford to pay private lawyers, according to a landmark lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.

"Every day, in courtrooms throughout the state, New Yorkers are denied justice simply because they are poor. Justice should not depend on your ZIP code or the size of your wallet," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. "We filed this lawsuit today as a last resort, in response to the constitutional deficiencies identified by a commission appointed by Chief Judge Kaye to evaluate our public defense system, and the failure of lawmakers to compel the state to repair what is clearly a broken and unjust system."

The class action lawsuit charges that a lack of adequate funding, oversight and statewide standards is denying New Yorkers accused of crimes their lawful right to competent, qualified and timely representation at all stages of the justice process, a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York. Plaintiffs are defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties who have encountered these problems. The plaintiffs seek reform on behalf of all defendants who are or will be charged with felonies, misdemeanors or lesser offenses and who cannot afford a lawyer.

Currently, court-appointed lawyers across the state are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and lack sufficient staff and resources to do their jobs. Some lack the necessary experience and training to competently handle their cases.

As a result of these deficiencies, many individuals facing criminal charges are compelled to appear in court without a lawyer at critical junctures, such as when bail decisions are made. This often results in unnecessary or excessive bail being set and keeps people who cannot afford it in jail awaiting trial. Studies link high bail to an increased likelihood of conviction.

Many public defense lawyers also fail to: meet or consult with clients at critical stages in their cases; investigate the charges against their clients or hire experts who can assist with case preparation or testify at trial; file necessary pre-trial motions; and provide meaningful consultation before clients accept plea bargains, regardless of whether a charge is appropriate or a viable defense exists.

"The public defense crisis in New York is unfair both to defendants and to the lawyers who are charged with representing them," said lead counsel on the case, NYCLU Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. "Defendants are unfairly given second-rate justice because they cannot afford to pay private lawyers, and public defense attorneys are not given the resources, tools and training they need to do right by their clients."

The failures of the state's fractured public defense system are widely accepted. The inadequacy of the county driven, largely county-funded scheme has been well-documented for more than 40 years in dozens of reports by legal advocacy organizations, professional associations and government commissions.

In June 2006, a commission appointed by Judge Kaye concluded that the state's public defense system is "severely dysfunctional" and "structurally incapable" of providing people effective legal representation. Just last month, the Innocence Project found that New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence.

"The effects of a broken public defense system impact all New Yorkers," Stoughton said. "When innocent people go to jail, the real criminals continue to roam free."

The system also places a hefty financial burden on the state's 62 counties, which collectively spent more than $262 million last year on public defense services. The state provided the counties, including New York City, with less than $62 million for public defense.

"You can't have a properly functioning criminal justice system without a properly functioning system of public defense," said Gary Stein, a partner with Schulte Roth & Zabel and a former federal prosecutor. "The prosecution, the judge and the defendant all benefit when defense counsel performs in the way the Constitution envisions. The broken public defense system in our State doesn't have to be like this. It can and must be fixed."

The lawsuit asks the court to declare New York's public defense system unconstitutional and order the state to assure that competent legal representation is provided to those accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire lawyers. At the very least, the state must set statewide standards for public defense, establish an oversight mechanism, and adequately fund public defense services.

New York is one of only six states that have no statewide responsibility or oversight mechanism for public defense and remains among a minority of states, including Alabama and Mississippi, that have failed to join the movement toward full state funding.

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