CANTON St. Lawrence County is among 25 counties in the state to share a grant of $12 million to help provide indigent defendants with legal representation the first time they make a court appearance.
The countys share of the grant from the state Office of Indigent Services is $587,000 over three years.
Its the first time that the state of New York has provided funding to counties to provide counsel at a defendants first court appearance, William Leahy, head of the state Office of Indigent Legal Services, said in a statement.
The grant will help people who have been arrested stay out of jail and be treated as innocent until proven guilty, said county Public Defender Stephen D. Button, who prepared the grant application.
The money also will relieve pressure on the county by reducing the expense of incarcerating and transporting defendants and completing paperwork.
St. Lawrence is a large county with an understaffed, overworked, under-resourced public defender office, Jonathan Gradess, director of the state Defenders Association, said in a statement. Steve Button and his small band of overworked colleagues handle way too many cases with way too few state resources under circumstances that threaten the very fabric of justice.
It is not clear how many defendants face their first court appearance usually their arraignment without the benefit of a lawyer, but 190 defendants in 2012 were arraigned without counsel and sent to jail in the county, Mr. Button said.
Having an attorney does not guarantee that a defendant will not be sent to jail, but a lawyer could make a judge aware of a defendants employment status, his familial responsibilities and prior criminal history.
Defendants often make inadvertent admissions when they are without counsel that could color a judges decision on whether to incarcerate them, Mr. Button said.
If even half of the 190 defendants arraigned without counsel in 2012 and sent to jail were instead released, the county would save significant money. The cost of housing an inmate amounts to about $110 per day, Mr. Button said. Having the sheriffs road patrol drive defendants from court appearances across the county to the jail also costs money and keeps deputies from other duties, he said.
Mr. Button applied for $723,000, but the amount was reduced. The requests for funding exceeded the $12 million that was available.
All 25 of the counties that applied will receive some funding. Thirty-two other counties, including others in the north country, did not submit requests.
St. Lawrence did well, landing in the same range as Onondaga County, which will receive $588,000.
The grant program was created to help counties uphold their obligations to provide counsel to the accused. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a lawyer.
The state also is reviewing what it must do in light of a recent Court of Appeals decision in Hurrell-Harring v. New York, which recognizes that having counsel is critical at arraignment as a key part of criminal proceedings.