New York State Bar Association President Claire Gutekunst today said providing civil and criminal legal services for low-income New Yorkers are "high budget priorities" for the Association.
"We submit that legitimate budgetary concerns should not reduce access to justice for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable," she said in testimony submitted to the budget committees of the state Legislature. "The ability of an impoverished or unpopular individual to invoke the power of the world's most prestigious legal system to protect his or her rights is-and should continue to be-a source of great pride and great strength for all New Yorkers," she added.
Indigent Criminal Defense
As part of the 2017-18 state budget process, the State Bar continues to support creation of a state-funded system to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive effective legal representation as required by the U.S. Constitution. Governor Cuomo vetoed similar legislation on December 31, 2016.
In his proposed budget, Cuomo called for an increase in criminal defense funding for all counties in line with the state's 2014 settlement involving five counties in the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit. "This would be a critical step to improve indigent criminal defense services in New York State," Gutekunst said, adding that the Association objects to the governor's proposal for a $50 surcharge on the biennial attorney registration fee to help pay for it.
"The New York State Bar Association strongly objects to this proposed increase," she said."Providing indigent criminal defense is a constitutional mandate. The mandate is a state obligation, a societal responsibility, and it should be paid for from the general fund and not by a charge on the legal profession."
Civil Legal Services
Turning to another State Bar priority, Gutekunst supported the Judiciary's request for $100 million in funding for civil legal services, including $15 million to supplement funding that historically came from the Interest of Lawyer Account (IOLA) Fund, which has seen its revenues dip with lower interest rates in recent years.
"Proper state funding of critically needed programs and resources is necessary to meet the urgent needs of low-income New Yorkers to protect the essentials of life," including housing, preventing or escaping domestic violence and access to health care, she said.
Including the civil legal service funds, the proposed Judiciar budget totals $2.18 billion, an increase of $42.7 million or 2 percent. In addition, the Judiciary requests $15 million in capital funds to rebuild technology and security infrastructure.
Gutekunst noted that Chief Judge Janet DeFiore, since taking office a year ago, ordered an examination of the causes of the backlogs, bottlenecks and delays in the court system. "The funding increases sought in this year's Judiciary budget are designated principally to implement solutions to those barriers to justice and the New York State Bar Association supports those increases," Gutekunst said.
Other Budget Items
The State Bar Association seeks adequate funding in the budget to support enactment of three of its other legislative priorities:
• Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility. New York is one of only two states where 16-year-old children are prosecuted as adults. Gutekunst, noting research that children under 18 have diminished judgmental capacities, said they could benefit from programs and services available only to children found to be delinquent in Family Court.
• Wrongful Conviction. The governor's proposed budget mentions an agreement on legislation struck by the State Bar Association, District Attorneys Association of the State of New York and the Innocence Project in 2015. It calls for video recording of interrogation of criminal suspects and enhanced eyewitness identification procedures.
• Veterans Treatment Courts. Since the creation of the nation's first Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo in 2008, similar courts have been created elsewhere in the state. They "provide an effective means for recognizing the needs of veterans, while ensuring public safety and benefit for our communities," Gutekunst said. "Accordingly, we support the governor's proposal to permit transfer of qualified cases across county lines to a Veterans Treatment Court." Cuomo has proposed a $1 million appropriation to enhance operation of the courts.
In addition, Gutekunst reiterated the support for funding of Prisoners Legal Services (PLS), which the Association helped initiate after the Attica prison riot in 1971.
"PLS helps to provide equal access to our system of justice for those who are incarcerated and would otherwise be deprived of such access," she said. "PLS helps inmates resolve problems and reduces tensions associated with incarceration. We also believe that PLS helps to foster a sense of fairness, thereby enhancing the positive attitudes and behavior of prisoners."
The budget testimony is available at: http://www.nysba.org/BudgetTestimony1-31-17/.
The 72,000-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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