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St. Lawrence County to state: take over indigent defense

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County, increasingly burdened by the cost of providing attorneys for the poor, became the first county in New York Tuesday to formally ask the state to take over the expense.

“This resolution represents the meat of a way to solve this problem,” said Jonathan E. Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders’ Association. “Counties speaking to this now could create a perfect storm. I urge you to get other counties on board.”

The state in 1965 mandated that counties would provide indigent defendants with attorneys based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the right to counsel for one charged with a crime was fundamental. New York does not pay the full cost of public defense even though the responsibility is that of the state.

“It is not something you can afford,” Mr. Gradess said.

The county knows that only too well.

In 2012, the county spent $1.9 million on indigent defense, which includes the Public Defender’s office, the Conflict Defender and Assigned Council. Of that amount, $851,000 went for Assigned Counsel, the program that provides attorneys for the indigent when the Public Defender and Conflict Defender are unable to take a case.

In 2013, the county spent $2.1 million on indigent defense, including $955,000 for Assigned Counsel. The overall figure included $188,000 spent on appeals, $444,000 on criminal cases, and $321,000 on Family Court cases.

With nearly 22,000 people on Medicaid, high numbers of food stamp recipients, and a weak economy, most applications in the county for a public defender come from people who meet the prescriptive poverty guidelines.

A state push to have defendants represented by an attorney at first arraignment will probably boost costs even more, Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said. “What can we do to save money?” he asked. “There just seems to be no end in sight.”

The answer was not what legislators wanted to hear.

“I think you have limited options,” Assigned Council Administrator Scott B. Goldie said. “The best we can do is make sure we assign someone who is close to the courts. The rates are set.”

In 2006, the Kaye Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services urged a state-funded, statewide defender system as a way to eliminate a deficient patchwork of services.

Now the state is a defendant in the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit, which seeks to transform the county method of providing indigent defense into a statewide network. The case is scheduled for trial in September, Mr. Gradess said. If counties gather their forces, they could create a momentum set in motion by the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit needs to be settled,” Mr. Gradess said. “This speaks to it.”

St. Lawrence County Public Defender Stephen D. Button was unable to make the legislative committee meeting, but issued a statement.

“This board is all too familiar with the problems of unfunded mandates. The citizens of this county are all too familiar with the taxes associated with unfunded mandates and the clients we strive to represent are all too familiar with the lack of resources brought about by underfunded indigent defense programs,” he said.

“Governor Cuomo has the ability to change a system in desperate need of change and assist localities who are already strained to the breaking point.”

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