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Publicly-funded criminal defense for those unable to hire their own lawyers could only improve in New York City if the recommendations of the statewide Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services are realized, city public defenders say.

The quality of representation here already is higher than in much of the state, lawyers are quick to note, but they didn’t quibble with the Commission’s recently published findings that criminal courts carry an “unbearable caseload” and some lawyers have not received expected salary raises or legal training. Most of all, they emphasize that the “collateral consequences” created by legislators over the past few years – through which, for example, someone convicted of even a misdemeanor offense can be deported, evicted or fired from employment – have vastly complicated the job.

“We certainly welcome the chief judge’s focus on adequate resources and appropriate caseload standards,” said Legal Aid Attorney-in-Chief Steven Banks. His organization represents the majority of public defendants, taking 275,000 cases annually – including juvenile and civil cases – with a staff of 850 lawyers and a $145 million budget.

New York Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye convened the Commission two years ago to examine the “patchwork of indigent defense programs of varying size and character” around the state. The commissioners, who are lawyers and judges from the state’s 12 judicial districts, heard testimony in four cities last year and received a detailed investigation from a private research firm, The Spangenberg Group.

“Everyone is thrilled that Judge Kaye has really taken on this issue,” said Emily Chiang, a lawyer at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice who testified at one of the hearings. Now “it’s in the legislature’s hands, and it will be in the new governor’s hands,” she said. The report urges swift enactment of its recommendations to establish a statewide Indigent Defense Commission and a Chief Defender, among other initiatives.

Indeed, if the state does not act quickly to reform indigent defense services, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced it “will force the issue by filing a lawsuit.”

That reform is most needed because of the shoddy defense provided in many upstate communities, where conditions have been compared to those in the Deep South, Chiang said.

Miriam Gohara, a lawyer with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, testified to the Commission that “although New York and Mississippi differ in a great many respects … some of New York’s poorer counties face the same challenges Mississippi’s poorer counties do in meeting needs of indigent defendants because of a lack of adequate funding, or any contribution from the state.”

As an example, Gohara pointed to the excessive amount of time defendants “languished in jail, pre-trial” when a county used part-time instead of full-time defenders, which was documented both in Mississippi and in the Finger Lakes region’s Schuyler County.

In addition to Legal Aid, several other groups are assigned public defense cases in New York City. Of all criminal defense cases, “the overwhelming majority” are assigned to public defenders rather than being brought by clients to private lawyers, Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin Steinberg said. Her organization takes on about 12,500 cases per year with a staff of 30 lawyers.

Creating statewide standards for public defense could have the benefit of putting defenders on a more equal footing with prosecutors, Steinberg said, and of giving lawyers like her “a unified voice to represent the criminal defense perspective.”

-Karen Loew

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