- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York would start paying for public defenders statewide under legislation heading to the governor’s desk to ensure the poor have lawyers at arraignments and fill other gaps in how they’re represented.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration previously settled that issue for five counties, ending a class-action lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The group said the state left poor New Yorkers ill-defended by lawyers paid insufficiently by individual counties.

“The legislation commits New York to systemic reform of the criminal justice system,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU’s legislative director. Its 2014 report, issued shortly before the settlement, found many poor defendants languished in jail and lost jobs, homes and families, while their public defenders faced overwhelming caseloads.

A key issue was no lawyers at arraignments, at which judges often decide whether to jail suspects and set bail.

New York City and 57 counties currently pay most costs for their staff and contract public defenders with some state support.

“When fully phased in, the legislation will relieve counties of hundreds of millions of dollars of mandate relief,” said Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, an Albany Democrat and lead sponsor. She cited a 2006 report from then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye that called public defense an “ongoing crisis” in New York.

The court settlement requires the state to pay for defenders in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties, which were named in the suit. The legislation would require reimbursing all the others fully in 2023, starting with 25 percent payment next year.

The municipalities reported spending almost $400 million for public defenders last year. With service improvements the law would impose - lawyers required at arraignments and caseload limits - it would cost more.

The settlement also committed New York’s Office of Indigent Legal Services to set uniform criteria for defendants’ eligibility for court-appointed defenders, which have been established, and caseload standards, now due in December. Both will govern the five-county settlement and set guidance and standards for the entire state, said Joseph Wierschem, the office’s counsel.

Meanwhile, more state money is beginning to go to the five counties, which have developed new plans for indigent defense. They have a mid-October deadline to implement them, Wierschem said. The state office is developing more accurate cost estimates based on the new standards.

NYCLU staff attorney Mariko Hirose said regular updates show the settlement is going well.

Asked whether Cuomo will sign the legislation, spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the governor’s counsel will review it. When the settlement was announced in late 2014, Cuomo called that “a positive step for New York’s judicial system that addresses long-standing inequities.” He was proud of a resolution “that results in a fairer, more humane justice system” of a problem his administration inherited, he said.

It was projected then that it would cost more than $100 million annually statewide to bring individual public defender caseloads down from about 680 to a recommended national standard of 400 maximum. New York City reduced its caseloads to within the guidelines over the previous few years with funding from the state judiciary budget.

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