USA Intervenes for Poor Criminal Defendants

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – The Department of Justice on Thursday backed plaintiffs in a class action that faults New York State for providing inadequate counsel to poor defendants.
     The Statement of Interest of the United States suggests a framework by which the judge hearing the case can weigh allegations that public defenders in the state are so overworked and underfunded that they cannot effectively represent indigent clients.
     The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed the document in Albany County Supreme Court, where the case will go to trial Oct. 7.
     Attorney General Eric Holder announced the filing on the day he submitted his resignation as head of the Justice Department. He will remain in office until a successor is named.
     “America’s indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis, and over 50 years after it was made, the promise of Gideon is not being met,” Holder said in a statement, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright.
     The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to counsel, Holder said.
     The New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York City law firm Schulte, Roth & Zabel filed the class-action in 2007, claiming that inadequate funding, resources and oversight of the public defense system threatened to deprive 20 named plaintiffs and the class they represent of effective counsel in criminal proceedings.
     According to the NYCLU, lead plaintiff Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, a 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. She lost her job and home as a result.
     The complaint cited five counties as emblematic of New York’s “broken” public defense system, but one, Ontario County, was dropped earlier this year after it set up a Public Defender’s Office. The four counties still in the class action are Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.
     New York counties have been responsible for providing defense services for the poor since 1965.
     On Thursday, the NYCLU said the Justice Department’s statement of interest underscored the importance of the class action.
     “The Department of Justice’s statement sends a strong signal in New York and across the nation that broken public defense systems compromise the quality of justice in America and should not be tolerated,” NYCLU lead counsel Corey Stoughton said in a statement.
     In the document, the Justice Department said it was not taking a stand on the merits of the lawsuit. The purpose of the statement of interest is to provide the court with a structure with which to assess the claims of constructive denial of counsel.
     The document says constructive denial can occur in two “often linked” circumstances. The first is when assigned counsel faces “structural limitations,” such as “severe lack of resources, unreasonably high workloads, or critical understaffing of public defender offices.”
     The second is when the “traditional markers of representation,” such as timely meetings with clients, conducting discovery and calling expert witnesses, are absent or “significantly compromised.”
     “Under either or both of these circumstances, a court may find that the appointment of counsel is superficial and, in effect, a form of non-representation that violates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel,” the 14-page document states.
     The public defender system nationwide is chronically underfunded, according to the document. A footnote points to reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics comparing 2007 data that show $5.8 billion budgeted for prosecutors and $2.3 billion budgeted for public defenders across the country.
     Constructive denial can occur even when public defenders’ offices are not systematically underfunded “if the attorneys providing defender services are unable to fulfill their basic obligations to their clients,” the document states.
     That might happen when a defense attorney has insufficient time to prepare a case – a traditional marker of representation.
     “These markers may be considered in conjunction with the structural limitations placed on counsel to determine whether the counties ‘constructively’ denied counsel to indigent defendants during criminal proceedings,” the Justice Department says.
     “When assessing the merits of the case, this court may use this framework to assess whether a systemic ‘constructive’ denial of counsel in violation of Gideon and the Sixth Amendment occurred from either factor, standing alone or in conjunction.”
     If the court finds constitutional violations, it has broad injunctive authority to force a remedy, according to the Justice Department.
     The NYCLU said the statement of interest is the first time the Justice Department has weighed in on a public defense complaint in state court.
     Last summer, Holder filed a statement in Seattle Federal Court in a class action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington that alleged two suburban cities provided inadequate representation for indigent misdemeanor defendants.
     In December, the judge found for the plaintiffs and ordered the cities to hire independent monitors to oversee their public defender systems.
     The New York class action was filed a year after Judith Kaye, then chief judge of the state’s high court, the Court of Appeals, received the final report from a commission she convened to look into defense services for the poor.
     The Kaye Commission concluded that a crisis existed and recommended a fully state-funded statewide defender system.
     That has not happened, although 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.
     On Wednesday, the office released a report assessing what it would cost the 57 counties in upstate New York to comply with national caseload limits.
     The counties spent $174.9 million in 2013 to provide required indigent services, according to the report. But to get to the national limit of 367 new weighted cases per attorney annually, they would have needed to spend an additional $105.2 million last year.
     That mostly would have covered the staff needed to reduce the 680 new weighted cases per attorney handled last year, the report said.

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