Tackling the Public Defender System

I know of a young man who, some years ago, got into a relatively minor scrape with the law. As a college kid in a remote Upstate town, he did not want to involve his parents and asked to be represented by a public defender. The public defender assigned to him turned out also to be one of the town justices. “Well if you did it, you plead guilty,” the PD advised him.

This young man was fortunate that when his Mom and Dad found out, Dad called an attorney friend who recommended a colleague in that college town who got the charges adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. Most people who rely on PDs do not have the luxury of relatives with lawyer friends.

He was fortunate also to have met with the PD well in advance of his court date. According to the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission, many PDs meet their clients for the first time just minutes before they both meet with the judge.

Gideon must be spinning in his grave.

And so, as reported in the Times Union —

ALBANY — Legal advocates called for an overhaul of New York’s public defense system Thursday, saying a lack of state dollars has overworked lawyers and put their clients at risk of ineffective representation…

The advocates want the cost of public defense shifted completely from counties to the state. They are pushing legislation to create a statewide Independent Public Defense Commission, which would provide money and training for the defense…

The issue arose as advocates released a report Thursday titled, “Justice Impaired: The Impact of New York’s Failure to Effectively Implement the Right to Counsel.” It focused solely on Franklin County, near the Canadian border, but described problems as vast across the state…

While national standards limit lawyers to no more than 150 felonies, 400 misdemeanors or 60 Family Court cases a year, the Franklin County public defender handled 110 felonies and 156 misdemeanors in the first six months of this year alone, the report said.

It noted five Franklin County lawyers were doing the work of 12.

You can read the report HERE.

Bi-partisan legislation to reform the public defender system has been introduced in the Assembly (A9087-A) and Senate (S 4311-A) by the Chairs of their respective Codes Committees, Assemblymember Joseph Lentol and Senator Dale Volker. Governor Spitzer’s office noted that the bill was under review. 


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