It’s been more than 200 years since the creation of the U.S. Constitution, but it wasn’t until 1963 that the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Sixth Amendment, all states are required to supply free lawyers to defendants who can’t afford legal counsel. However, it would seem that not all complimentary legal representation is created equally across the state of New York.
A lawsuit settlement from October 2014 found that the quality of legal representation provided, while free of charge, varied greatly from county to county. Onondaga County was one of five counties identified by the New York Civil Liberties Union for its substandard efforts.
Onondaga County did make some attempts to rectify the situation back in October of this year. The county doubled the eligible income requirement for the free lawyer program, which means that more defendants now have access to legal representation. In addition, the county is now able to guarantee that a free lawyer will be available at any time of day for arraignments. Governor Cuomo also recently signed a bill that grants counties the power to create a centralized location for after-hours arraignments.
Yet these efforts have not been quite enough. Now, the Assigned Counsel Program in Onondaga County, which is in charge of paying these court-appointed attorneys, has doubled its annual budget to $10 million. Although this is good news, it signals major changes to the program itself.
Renee Captor, the program’s longtime assigned counsel director, and her assistant have agreed to vacate their positions effective December 16. While the future of several other counsel employees is yet to be determined, the program is currently seeking a new executive director, deputy director, and quality enhancement attorney. It is also looking to hire a chief financial officer for the first time in the program’s history. The new administration, which will be in charge of managing the doubled budget, will likely take effect after the first of the year.
The change in administration seems to be a favorable one, according to one lawyer from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Mariko Hirose noted that “the assigned counsel program, as it was being run, was not capable or not willing to make changes.”
As it stands in Onondaga County, the typical assigned case doesn’t receive more than four hours of attention. In fact, a court-appointed lawyer will spend less than an hour investigating the facts in 95% of cases. One of the most common complaints among defendants is that their court-appointed attorneys don’t make the time to meet with them.
While a large chunk of the extra $5 million in the expanded budget will be used to reduce caseloads, the extra money will also pay for court-appointed lawyers to spend more time on their cases and to meet with clients in jail, as well as funding additional training and increased use of private investigators. Hirose expects that implementing these changes will take close to a year.
However, there’s another effort gaining traction in this area. A measure was recently approved by the New York state legislature in order to have the state take over all the costs associated with providing free legal representation — an estimated $360 million a year. As of now, New York State contributes only $80 million. The state legislature has yet to forward the bill to Governor Cuomo for consideration.
Onondaga County, which pays several million dollars per year towards the assigned counsel program, would surely benefit should New York state take over the costs for free legal representation. But until that happens, the county will be under the watchful eye of NYCLU.