NEW YORK (CN) – A class action challenging New York state’s system of providing public defenders can proceed because there’s enough indication that the system is failing the poor, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.
“Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system’s breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote for the 4-3 majority. “Wrongful convictions, however, are not the only injustices that command our present concern. As plaintiffs rightly point out, the absence of representation at critical stages is capable of causing grave and irreparable injury to persons who will not be convicted.”
There have been similar class actions over public defense systems in at least four other states.
The present case comes after Kimberly Hurell-Harring claimed a public defender in Washington County, N.Y., did nothing but pressure her to plead guilty following her felony arrest for trying to smuggle pot to her husband, who was in prison.
The lawsuit contained allegations that “although lawyers were eventually nominally appointed (to Hurell-Harring and 19 other plaintiffs in the suit), they weren’t unavailable to their clients – they conferred with them little, if at all, were often completely unresponsive to their urgent inquiries and requests from jail, sometimes for months on end, waived important rights without consulting them, and ultimately appeared to do little more on their behalf than act as conduits for plea offers,” Lippman wrote.
“In New York, the legislature has left the performance of the state’s obligations … to the counties, where it is discharged, for the most part, with county resources and according to local rules.
“Plaintiffs … content that this arrangement, involving what is in essence a costly, largely unfunded and politically unpopular mandate upon local government, has functioned to deprive them and other similarly situated indigent defendants … of constitutionally and statutorily granted representational rights,” Lippman wrote.
In reinstating the complaint that was tossed by the appellate division,