Legislators: State Should Assume Legal Costs for Defending the Poor

Albany (June 7, 2016) – Albany County lawmakers are renewing calls for state leaders to pass a locally written bill requiring New York to reimburse counties for costs related to providing legal services to the poor.

The state Assembly Thursday approved an indigent legal defense bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany. Drafted last year by Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy and former Albany County Judge Larry Rosen, the law would make the state assume full funding of indigent legal services from counties by 2023. The bill is sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse. It requires passage from the Senate – and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature – to become law.

Albany County legislators were ahead of the issue three months ago, when they unanimously endorsed a resolution urging state leaders to take over the costs of public defender services from counties. The resolution declared: “The governor stated recently that the entire New York State justice system needs to be examined to insure it provides the most equitable and fair treatment possible. The state can improve the public defense system by increasing the funding, designing a cost-effective way to finance the system over time, and relieving counties of a responsibility delegated to them since 1965.”

On June 13, Sean Ward, the chairman of the Albany County Legislature, will again emphasize the county’s commitment to indigent legal services by introducing a new resolution endorsing the state Office of Indigent Legal Services’ recently promulgated eligibility requirements for assigned counsel (agenda here). Ward, a Democrat from Green Island, intends to send the measure to the Law Committee for review.

“This legislation has been a priority of the Albany County Legislature for years,” Democratic Majority Leader Frank Commisso said. “It ensures the justice system works equally for everyone, even those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled all Americans, regardless of wealth, have the right to a legal defense, and it’s the state’s responsibility to supply attorneys for those unable to afford them. Most counties in New York are responsible for 80 percent of their public defender costs. Albany County this year budgeted $6,075,662 for indigent legal services, about $1.2 million of which is covered by the state.

New York State started funding improved indigent legal services in five counties – Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington – as part of a 2014 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The organization alleged the state had violated the constitutional rights of poor people in the counties by not ensuring them adequate legal services. The court settlement required the state to provide first-arraignment counsel, case load caps for public defenders and additional staff and support for public defenders.

In light of the settlement, the state should provide equal treatment – and funding – for all of its counties, argued Democrat Michael Mackey, an Albany County legislator from New Scotland, who introduced the March resolution in the legislature and chairs its Law Committee.

“This legislation would be great for people who cannot afford legal representation, but also for county taxpayers because it would lift an expensive unfunded mandate off their backs,” Mackey said.

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The Albany County Legislature meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month in the Legislative Chambers of the Albany County Court at 16 Lodge St., Albany.

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