- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - In a new report examining public defenders in five counties, the New York Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday called state efforts to defend the poor in criminal cases an abject failure.

NYCLU is scheduled to go to trial next month in Albany in a lawsuit arguing that New York systemically provides inadequate staff and money for constitutionally required defense lawyers. The suit first filed in 2007 seeks defense attorneys at all arraignments, smaller caseloads and better funding with the state taking over the county-based system.

“For more than 50 years New York has been violating the United States Constitution, the state constitution and the laws of New York state by failing to provide adequate public defense services to poor people who stand accused of crimes,” Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Every day in courtrooms across many parts of the state New Yorkers are denied their right to meaningful representation just because they’re poor. The consequences are devastating.”

Many languish in jail and lose jobs, homes and families, while taxpayers pay for jails and prisons and public defenders face overwhelming caseloads, the report said.

Donald Telfair, cited in the report as one of several examples of failed justice, said he was beaten on Aug. 10, 2013, in Suffolk County by three men who thought he robbed them, sending him to the hospital with a broken jaw. Arraigned the next day, his assigned lawyer asked him no questions, and with a wired jaw he tried to personally counter the prosecutor’s errors about his alleged criminal history, he said. Unable to post bail, he was jailed for months until accepting a plea bargain for time served for a robbery he said he didn’t commit.

“Effective counsel always requires a lawyer to investigate what the prosecution says you did, but that also rarely happens,” said Corey Stoughton, lead attorney in NYCLU’s lawsuit.

“Across much of the state justice is available only those who can afford it,” she said.

In Onondaga, Suffolk and Schuyler counties, poor defendants regularly appeared at arraignments with no lawyers, according to data from 2010, 2011 and 2012. In Ontario County, public defenders billed zero minutes for investigating. In Washington County, the public defender caseloads were not formally tracked at all in 2012, the report said.

New York is among few states that abdicated responsibility for indigent defense to its counties, according to NYCLU officials. The state has made some recent improvements, like establishing the Office of Indigent Legal Services to monitor and help fund county programs, and New York City has taken steps to reduce caseloads, but the fundamental flaws remain, they said.

That state office reported last year that it would have cost $111 million to bring defender caseloads in the 57 upstate New York counties down from an average of 719 to the recommended national standard of 400 maximum. The counties were already spending nearly $166 million for indigent defense.

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