February 27, 2015: State Bar President Urges Funds for Indigent Criminal Defense, Maintaining Full Operation of Courthouses

New York State Bar Association President Glenn Lau-Kee today called on the Legislature to approve the Office of Indigent Legal Services' request for $20 million to address heavy caseloads and services in counties not affected by the Hurrell-Harring settlement.  

He also lent Association support to the agency's request for $8 million to provide counsel to criminal suspects at their first appearance in court.

In the October 2014 Hurrell-Harring settlement, the state acknowledged its constitutional responsibility to ensure that individuals accused of crimes who cannot afford an attorney have competent legal representation at the state’s expense. Historically, the state has delegated that responsibility to county governments. The settlement is limited to five counties: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington. 

“The office needs to continue to increase support and relief to localities in fulfilling the mandate of the U.S. and New York constitutions to provide the effective assistance of counsel for indigent criminal defendants,” Lau-Kee said in testimony submitted to legislative budget committees.  

The New York State Bar Association has long supported a state-funded, state-run criminal defense program for low- income individuals.

Judiciary Budget

The Judiciary has proposed a $1.86 billion appropriation to support court operations.

“The State Bar supports funding that would provide for the newly created Family and City Court judges, maintain full operation of the courthouses, and allow the courts to fill critical positions needed to provide service to the public, including clerks and court officers,”Lau-Kee said.

“The Judiciary’s proposed budget is intended to maintain, and modestly add to, the workforce of the courts to address the impact of recent budget cuts on the operations,” he added. “Budgets in recent years have had a real impact on court operations—an impact felt by litigants and their counsel, by jurors, and by judges and court personnel.”

Civil Legal Services

The Association “strongly supports” the Judiciary’s $70 million request for civil legal services, one of “the State Bar’s top priorities for many years,” Lau-Kee said. Such funding should be targeted at the “essentials of life,” such as housing, preventing or escaping domestic violence, and access to health care.

The Association also supports a $15 million appropriation to offset declining revenues of the Interest on Lawyers Account (IOLA), which provides grants to civil legal service providers. Low-interest rates and a softer real estate market diminished IOLA funds in recent years.

Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility
New York is one of only two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-old children as adults. 

“Recent research has proven conclusively that children under the age of 18 have significantly diminished judgmental capabilities,” Lau-Kee said in his written testimony.

“Children in New York 16 years and older could benefit from programs and services available only for children found to be delinquent in Family Court and, hence, not convicted in a criminal court.”

The Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice recently recommended raising the age of criminal responsibility to 17 in 2017 and 18 in 2018. “This serves as an excellent basis for discussion,” he said.

Prisoners Legal Services

Lau-Kee commended Governor Andrew Cuomo for including funding for Prisoners Legal Services (PLS) in the proposed Executive Budget.  The program, which the Association helped initiate after the 1971 Attica riot, provides access to justice to those who are incarcerated. 

“We believe that PLS helps inmates resolve problems and that it reduces tensions associated with incarceration. We also believe that PLS helps to foster a sense of fairness, thereby enhancing the positive attitudes and behaviors of prisoners. It also helps in the development of sound correctional policy. One of the greatest values of PLS is that it works to avoid the conditions of confinement that resulted in the devastating Attica riot,” he said.

Albany Regional Legal Services Center

The State Bar Association is asking the state Legislature for a one-time investment of $5 million—“a very small portion of surplus budget funds”—for the creation of a legal services center in Albany that would enhance the availability of legal services to low-income individuals.

“In far too many cases, people with no legal experience are forced into court without a lawyer, and face loss of their apartment or home, or loss of custody of a child, or denial of benefits to which they are entitled,” Lau-Kee said.

“The Albany-based center could offer a unified intake system that could direct clients to an appropriate provider. Capital District legal services providers also could work with clients at the center or out of their current offices.
 
“The center also could offer legal service attorneys (including pro bono attorneys) office space to meet with clients and serve as a center for training, computer technology resources and a library.
 
“It could also be valuable for out-of-town attorneys for the indigent who have arguments in the Third Department and Court of Appeals, with a moot courtroom where attorneys could prepare for their arguments. It would serve a critically important function by allowing enhanced opportunities to bring together providers in the region to address access to justice in a more coordinated and efficient manner.

“This proposal is supported by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, Empire Justice Center and the Legal Project, all of which provide services in the Capital District.
 
“The State Bar Association urges that a one-time capital investment of $5 million be appropriated from surplus funds to establish the civil legal services center in Albany,” Lau-Kee said.
 
The 74,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation.  It was founded in 1876.

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Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen
Director, Media Services and Public Affairs
Lbang-jensen@nysba.org
518-487-5530