June 18, 2016; Daily Mail (Catskill, NY)

As indigent defendants around the country know all too well, the Sixth Amendment requires the state provide competent counsel, but it’s not specific as to when that counsel must be provided or of what quality. Currently, New York and Louisiana are setting out on parallel trajectories to amend the funding woes affecting their public defenders’ offices. New York’s Senate and Assembly unanimously passed a bill that calls on the state to fully provide public defender funding. Louisiana also passed a similar bill, which will require the state to fund the majority of the funding needed by the department. The bills come amid growing concern for the public defender funding crisis nationwide, spotlighted by Louisiana, as defendants remain locked in prisons and on waiting lists for attorneys.

Currently, New York counties pay the full amount for indigent clients who cannot afford defense attorneys and must be provided a public defender. According to the bill, the state would reimburse counties by first assuming twenty-five percent of the funding for public defender services starting in 2017, and incrementally increasing that funding share by 10 percent each year. The state would be fully funding the services by 2023. The estimated costs are between $275 million to $450 million. In addition, the bill will also require certain workload standards and regulations be put into place. These standards are particularly important when, at the extreme, public defenders could be juggling over 100 cases at once.

Among other things, the bill also wants to improve the quality of public defenders, though it does not describe how that change would be implemented.

“This legislation is a common sense solution that will provide much-needed mandate relief to our counties, and at the same time ensure they are able to continue to provide quality legal services for those who can’t afford it,” said Senator George Amedore (R-NY). “This is a win for the counties, who are struggling to balance a budget and hold the line on taxes, a win for the taxpayers, and a win for all those individuals who rely on these critical services.”

The bill came following a class action lawsuit involving five New York counties who were calling on the state to cover public defender costs when defendants were deprived of their right to counsel. As part of that settlement, the state was required to provide any additional funding the counties needed. The bill as drafted by the Senate also references the lawsuit directly and notes the settlement agreement should be extended beyond the five counties.

“While the settlement agreement pertains to only five counties, its criteria establish a standard for providing indigent legal services that should apply statewide,” says the Senate’s bill. It would behoove Governor Cuomo to heed the unanimous support show criminal reform advocates, activists and, uniquely, legislators and sign this bill into law.

In early June, Louisiana’s House and Senate passed a bill requiring the Louisiana Public Defender Board dedicate at least sixty-five percent of its annual budget to funding to public defenders offices to ensure uniform services and provided to the indigent. The matter of funding Louisiana’s public defenders’ offices is complicated not only by the state’s $600 million budget deficit, but also the unpredictable sources of funding public defenders must rely on. As NPQ has noted, unlike other public defenders’ offices around the country, Louisiana relies on court fees and traffic fees, which are subject to change. As such, the overwhelming majority of offices in the state have had to restrict which cases they take on and how many attorneys they can employ.

Louisiana’s bill has been sent to the governor, but in the meantime, Louisiana’s indigent defendants, as well as the victims of the crimes, continue to suffer. A state appeals court overturned a lower court’s decision that freed seven defendants who had been waiting years for trial due to a lack of public defenders. Over the years that the defendants have waited for their cases to go to trial, the victims have been waiting as well. Each of the seven defendants is being held on serious felonies, including murder and aggravated rape, and none can afford a private attorney.

“In our city and in this nation, you shouldn’t penalize people for being poor,” said Gregory Carter, an attorney for one of the defendants. “If they’re too poor to hire their own attorney, they shouldn’t be victimized and sent to jail indefinitely.”—Shafaq Hasan