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St. Lawrence County contracts for indigent legal appeals

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators agreed Tuesday to farm out appellate indigent-defense work to a nonprofit organization, possibly in cooperation with two other counties, to increase their chances for state grants based on sharing services.

Legislators agreed unanimously to contract for up to three years with the Rural Law Center, Plattsburgh, to handle criminal and Family Court appeals for the indigent. Under the contract, the Rural Law Center, a nonprofit agency with three appellate attorneys, would be paid $150,000 in the first year, $155,000 in the second year and $160,000 in the third year to handle up to 80 appeals annually.

Over the last three years, the Appellate Division, Third Department has assigned counsel for an average of 77 appeals annually for St. Lawrence County court cases.

The arrangement with the Rural Law Center would save the county an average of roughly $40,000 annually. Over the last five years, the county has paid out $190,000 annually for indigent appeals, with a high year of $222,000 and a low year of $179,000, Public Defender Stephen D. Button said.

The county has been looking for ways to cut the cost of providing attorneys for the needy.

The agreement is modeled on one established in Western New York, where three counties contracted with Legal Aid of Buffalo, Mr. Button said. The sharing of services made the western counties eligible for certain grants they could not apply for on their own. That is also the hope for St. Lawrence County, which agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with Essex and Franklin counties to pursue a consolidated approach.

Although neither of the other two counties has yet approved the agreement, they are believed to be supportive.

“It’s to everybody’s advantage,” county Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The arrangement will benefit the county even if Essex and Franklin counties do not participate, but a wider partnership will be more valuable, Mr. Button said.

A contract with the Rural Law Center will outline methods of case assignments and reporting, protocols for payments and evidence of compliance with general requirements for contractors. The center will have a representative in Massena.

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