Fix New York's Public Defense System
by Karen Mihalyi

The "right to counsel" means nothing if people who cannot afford to hire an attorney receive late or inadequate representation. New York State fails to ensure the right to counsel for those of little means who appear in its courts.

The immense cost of our broken public defense system can be measured in many ways:

lack of fairness in our judicial system. The quality of public defense varies from county to county and many are denied basic legal rights;
harm to families. Public defense attorneys for parents in family court lack time to prepare and effectively advocate for their clients;
fiscal and social costs of improper pretrial incarceration in criminal cases. Lack of timely, effective advocacy leaves clients in jail, costing them jobs, housing and even custody of their children;
disrupted lives. Innocent people may be convicted, or minor offenses inflated, leading to unnecessary incarceration; and
fiscal and social costs of ineffective sentencing advocacy. Assembly line sentencing rather than individualized advocacy for appropriate disposition leads to recidivism instead of reentry.

A commission appointed by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye set out the need to overhaul our county-by-county public defense system in 2006. The NYCLU has sued the State and five counties over our unconstitutional public defense system. Three former Court of Appeals judges have said the suit is an opportunity for needed reform. Editorials calling for the Kaye reforms have appeared across the state. A growing list of over 200 organizations (including the Syracuse Peace Council), and many individuals statewide, support reform. They call for:
an Independent Public Defense Commission, and
a statewide, fully and adequately state-funded public defense system.

The right to counsel cannot be ignored because the economy has faltered. Improving public defense quality can save money and improve fairness.

What can you do?
Tell your state representatives to create an Independent Public Defense Commission as the infrastructure needed for effective reform. Fund that Commission at $3 million dollars in 2009 and empower it to plan for state provision of public defense.

Join the Campaign for an Independent Public Defense Commission (www.newyorkjusticefund.org/campaign.htm or 518-465-0519).

Come to Albany on March 18 for Gideon Day, an annual lobbying event.


-Katie Blackburn and Mardi Crawford
New York Justice Fund


Karen, founder of the Community Choir, is a mother, counselor, and activist, and believes that everyone can sing, no exceptions!