A leading civil liberties group and the state reached a last-minute agreement Tuesday in a 7-year-old lawsuit over legal representation for the poor in parts of upstate New York, including Washington County.
As a result, lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union believe they have taken a crucial first step toward reforming a statewide system that has historically put indigent or low-income people at a distinct disadvantage when charged with crimes.
"Our settlement overhauls public defense in five counties and lays the foundation for statewide reform of New York's broken public defender system," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said in a phone conference laying out the settlement.
Initially, the deal ensures that defendants will have a lawyer present when they are charged with a crime; it sets the limit on caseloads carried by often overburdened public defenders and sets up a way to measure caseloads and the quality of defense.
That first phase should cost at least $5 million over the next two years, and lawyers hope it would quickly lead to an expansion for all counties statewide.
"It lays the groundwork for a strong state system," said Corey Stoughton, the NYCLU lawyer on the case.
The agreement focuses on Ontario, Onondaga (Syracuse), Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties. They were chosen because their public defense systems were each different, and represent a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities, all of which had flawed public defender programs.
The suit started in 2007 when Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, a 31-year-old nursing assistant and mother of two, was arrested for trying to take a small amount of marijuana to her husband in prison.
Her court-appointed lawyer met with her just minutes before her court appearance and she pleaded guilty to a felony even though what she did was a misdemeanor, Lieberman said.
She spent four months in jail, and lost her job and her home.
The NYCLU found a lawyer to appeal at no charge and got the conviction overturned.
Her original public defender, Patrick Barber, was later disbarred for other reasons.
The NYCLU took up the cause and filed suit on Hurrell-Harring's behalf in 2007 in state Supreme Court in Albany County. The trial had been set to start Wednesday.
In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he welcomed the deal. "Today's agreement is a positive step for New York's judicial system that addresses long-standing inequities," he said.
And David P. Miranda, president-elect of the State Bar Association, added,
"Today's settlement is welcome," noting his group has called for a statewide state-funded indigent defense system since 2007.
"I congratulate Governor Cuomo and the New York Civil Liberties Union for reaching a settlement," added Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who also supports a statewide system.
Even for the five counties covered by the agreement, the changes will take some time.
For example, the agreement says the state has 20 months to guarantee that indigent defendants in the five counties be represented by a lawyer.
Nor will the improvements be cheap.
The deal orders the state to pay $2.5 million to the NYCLU and $3 million to the Schulte Roth & Zabel law firm for their work on the suit.
And while the agreement calls for several million dollars to start with, a related report earlier estimated that if all of upstate were to provide an adequate number of defense lawyers for the indigent, it would have cost $106 million per year in 2013. (New York City has a separate system of public defenders.)
As well as hiring more lawyers, the agreement calls for adequate non-lawyer services such as investigators and translators when needed.
Despite the court settlement, participants will be watching at budget time.
The Cuomo administration plans to put the initial funding in his 2015-16 budget plan, but that will have to be agreed upon with the Legislature.
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