The indigent have, historically, received inadequate legal representation, and recently, there was a class-action lawsuit that claimed New York State had failed to offer sufficient legal defense to the poor in many counties. Governor Andrew Cuomo settled the lawsuit by promising to make larger payouts for improved public defenders’ offices.
According to the settlement, changes are slated to occur in four upstate counties, including Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, and Washington, as well as Suffolk County on Long Island. New York City remains unaffected by the decision. The settlement has been described by civil rights advocates as being groundbreaking, and a model for other counties beyond the city limits.
Terms of the Settlement
In addition to paying the cost of hiring additional defense attorneys, investigators, and expert witnesses, the state has agreed to make improvements in the quality of the defense for the poor in the five counties. Specifically, it has said it would create standards for the number of cases managed by each public defense lawyer, and that resources would be provided to lessen caseloads so that they would become more manageable.
Furthermore, the state promised to ensure that people who are unable to afford attorneys, have representation, in lieu of allowing county governments to assume this role.
Implications for the Future
The settlement is a step in the right direction, and one that serves to address some of the inequities in the justice system. Currently, the public defenders are extremely overworked; for instance, in Suffolk County, each Legal Aid attorney was managing 500 to 600 cases, and in Onondaga County, each public defender spends an average of four hours with their clients, and under an hour finding out the facts of a case. As a result of the settlement, this will likely change for the better, and legal aid attorneys will have a more reasonable caseload with time to devote to each client.
According to the Sixth Amendment, everyone has the right to legal representation. However, states were only forced to provide defense attorneys to the indigent who were accused of committing serious crimes, when the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.
We’ve certainly made improvements to the justice system since Gideon. And the settlement, which is scheduled to last seven and one-half years, mandates that within 20 months, the state guarantee that all indigent defendants in the five counties be represented by defense attorneys at their initial appearance. And after ten months have elapsed, each public defender’s caseload will be required to remain at the level determined by the state.