Press Releases

City Bar Urges Governor to Support Full Funding of Indigent Defense Services throughout New York State

New York, August 2, 2016 – In a letter to New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York City Bar Association strongly urges the Governor to sign bill A.10706/S.8114 into law to provide for the full funding of indigent defense services in New York.  

Signed by John S. Kiernan, the City Bar’s President, and John F. Savarese, Chair of the City Bar’s Task Force on Mass Incarceration, the letter notes that “with more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world” and that the first and most basic step to reducing incarceration statewide is ensuring that “all indigent defendants accused of crimes in New York are provided meaningful and effective legal representation.”

The problem in New York, according to the letter, lies in the inadequate administration of the right to counsel in criminal proceedings, which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the New York Constitution, and state law. More than 50 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that states are required to appoint counsel to any person charged with a crime but too poor to hire a lawyer. In New York, the state Constitution requires that the right to counsel be the right to meaningful and effective counsel. But two years after Gideon, New York enacted County Law 18-B, making its counties responsible for administering the right to counsel. “Unfortunately,” the letter states, “the resulting patchwork of indigent defense services in New York’s 62 counties has failed to guarantee the constitutional rights due to criminal defendants and, therefore, is insufficient to satisfy the constitutional obligations placed upon the State of New York.”

Citing findings by the Kaye Commission—convened in 2004 by the late Judith S. Kaye, former Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals, to examine the effectiveness of statewide indigent criminal defense services—the letter states that the system in New York has led to severe underfunding which has resulted in:

  1. An insufficient number of attorneys to cover arraignments;
  2. Caseloads so excessive that public defense attorneys have little to no contact with their clients and spend almost no time investigating their clients’ cases;
  3. Inadequate training of public defense attorneys; and
  4. Inadequate support services for public defense attorneys.

The Kaye Commission further found that there were no statewide standards to ensure quality public defense services, resulting in substandard practices in some areas and concluded that “New York’s current fragmented system of county-operated and largely county-financed indigent defense services fails to satisfy the state’s constitutional and statutory obligations to protect the rights of the indigent accused.” It recommended that the New York Legislature, not the counties, provide “adequate funding of indigent criminal defense.” The findings of the Kaye Commission were confirmed by the 2014 settlement of Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, which required that adequate criminal defense funding and quality standards be provided to five underfunded counties. 

A.10706/S.8114 would address the issues raised by the Kaye Commission and Hurrell by requiring the State to reimburse every county the full amount of its expenditures for providing indigent defense services. It would also require statewide standards and regulations that ensure every person has an attorney at arraignment, that regulate the caseloads of public defense attorneys so as to allow for meaningful and effective representation, and that improve the overall quality of court-appointed representation.

The City Bar recognizes that reducing incarceration in New York requires a multifaceted and multi-year effort. Signing A.10706/S.8114 into law following the unanimous passage of the legislation in both houses of the Legislature would “send the message to New Yorkers, and to the country, that New York State is committed to a fair criminal justice system where a person’s right to meaningful and effective counsel does not depend on his or her location within the State.  In contrast to the “disparate, inequitable, and ineffective system” the Kaye Commission observed, this bill has potential to transform New York’s public defense system into one that is fair, just, and effective. ”

The letter can be read here:

About the Association

The New York City Bar Association, since its founding in 1870, has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the legal profession, promoting reform of the law and access to justice, and providing service to the profession and the public. The Association, through its 24,000 members, continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged. Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities.