- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The New York Civil Liberties Union and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced an agreement Tuesday to improve criminal defense for the state’s poor and settle a lawsuit the NYCLU filed seven years ago.

The civil rights group said New York has systemically provided inadequate staff and money for constitutionally required defense lawyers in the 57 counties outside New York City.

The lawsuit sought defense attorneys at all arraignments, smaller caseloads and better funding, with the state taking over the county-based system. It was filed in 2007 on behalf of 20 defendants in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties.

The settlement, subject to a judge’s approval, would run more than seven years and require the state to ensure in 20 months that defense attorneys appear at poor defendants’ first court appearances in those counties and 10 months later to ensure that public defender caseloads have been reduced to an acceptable level.

“For the first time, New York State is acknowledging its constitutional responsibility to provide lawyers to poor defendants who have been forced to navigate the criminal justice system undefended and alone,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said.

The state is taking responsibility for providing public defense for the first time in the more than 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a state obligation, she said.

NYCLU attorney Corey Stoughton said it will lay the foundation for reform across the state. It also commits the state to spending $4 million over the next two years for the five counties for investigators, experts and training.

The Manhattan law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, working pro bono, was co-counsel with NYCLU in the class action lawsuit.

For the rest of the state, Tuesday’s agreement commits New York’s Office of Indigent Legal Services to work with judicial officials to establish uniform criteria for defendants’ eligibility for court-appointed defenders and caseload standards, officials said.

“Today’s agreement is a positive step for New York’s judicial system that addresses longstanding inequities and ensures fulfillment of the constitutional promise of criminal defense counsel for those who cannot afford it,” Cuomo said. “This was a problem that our administration inherited from years past, and I am proud that we have been able to reach a resolution that results in a fairer, more humane justice system.”

It’s been projected that it would cost more than $100 million per year to bring individual public defender caseloads from about 680 last year down to the recommended national standard of 400 maximum statewide. Counties provided that defense with about $175 million last year, including some state grant funding.

Lawyers for poor defendants in the state come from 72 institutional providers and 58 assigned counsel programs, a recent state report said. Last year, the number of attorneys, including those working part-time, for institutional providers rose to the full-time equivalent of 701, an increase of 47. Other staff also increased.

Their average caseload declined from 719 the year before. However, attorneys for two providers averaged more than 1,600 cases each.

New York City has reduced its caseloads to within the guidelines over the past few years with funding from the state judiciary budget. Most of the upstate funding comes from the counties, with some additional state money.

“There’s been a significant improvement in the quality of our representation,” said Seymour James, attorney-in-chief for the Legal Aid Society in New York City.

James said their reduction from an average of 682 cases per attorney to just under 400 and the hiring of about 250 attorneys followed 2009 state legislation. Their lawyers now spend far more time speaking with clients, interviewing witnesses and researching and preparing motions.

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