NY County Settles Indigent Defense Claim

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - The New York Civil Liberties Union settled with one of the five counties named in a lawsuit faulting the state for providing inadequate counsel to indigent defendants.
     The agreement followed Ontario County's creation of a Public Defender's Office in 2010 and a Conflict Defender's Office last year. The latter will open for business July 1 to handle cases when public defenders have a conflict.
     "We applaud Ontario County for taking steps to provide public defense services to its most vulnerable residents in the face of the state's inaction," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.
     The group filed its class-action lawsuit against New York in 2007 in Albany County Supreme Court and added the five counties in 2008: Onondaga, which includes the city of Syracuse in central New York; Ontario, near Rochester in the western part of the state; Schuyler, near Ithaca in south-central New York; Suffolk, on Long Island; and Washington, northeast of Albany bordering Vermont.
     The complaint seeks to remedy New York's "persistent failure to guarantee meaningful and effective legal representation to indigent people accused of crimes, as required by the New York State Constitution and the United States Constitution."
     Lead plaintiff Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, a 31-year-old mother of two in Rochester, was sentenced to four months in jail for a felony - though she had committed a misdemeanor - because of the inadequacy of her public defense, the NYCLU said. She lost her job and home as a result.
     The complaint says New York "once was a leader" in guaranteeing counsel to poor felony defendants, writing it into state criminal procedure law 80 years before the U.S. Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright right-to-counsel decision in 1963.
     "Sadly, today ... the leadership and humanity New York State showed in the past have badly eroded," the complaint states.
     The NYCLU claims that began in 1965 when New York "abdicated its responsibility" by making all 62 counties in the state "establish, fund and administer their own public defense programs, with little or no fiscal and administrative oversight or funding from the state."
     As a result, indigent defendants have been harmed by not having representation "at all critical stages of the criminal justice process," the complaint states.
     "This complaint focuses on how the state's failure to provide funding and fiscal and administrative oversight has created a broken public defense system in Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties, but the failings in those counties and the types of harms suffered by the named plaintiffs are by no means limited or unique to the named counties," the complaint states. "The state's failure to provide funding or oversight to any of New York's counties has caused similar problems throughout the state."
     The complaint was filed a year after New York's then-chief judge, Judith Kaye, received the final report from a commission she convened to look into defense services for the poor.
     The so-called Kaye Commission concluded that "the indigent defense system in New York State is both severely dysfunctional and structurally incapable of providing each poor defendant with the effective legal representation that he or she is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of New York."
     To counteract what the commission called a "crisis," it recommended a fully state-funded, statewide defender system.
     That has not happened, though a state Office of Indigent Legal Services was established in 2011. The office makes grants to counties to help them hire public defenders to meet caseload demands.
     The NYCLU settlement with Ontario County, announced Thursday, needs final approval from the Albany County Supreme Court and the Ontario County Board of Supervisors.
     The NYCLU said its lawsuit against the state and the four other counties will proceed to trial in the fall.