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Measure to have state take over indigent defense gathers steam

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A county legislative effort that started in St. Lawrence County to nudge the state into a complete takeover of indigent defense costs is gaining support.

The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators earlier this month formally asked the state to take over the cost of providing indigent defendants with an attorney, a right to counsel when charged with a crime guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then, 10 other counties have passed similar requests and others have resolutions pending, Deputy County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle said.

The county was invited to participate in a press conference Tuesday in Albany with the New York State Defenders Association on how a statewide class action challenging the state’s present system of providing defense could be impetus for reform.

Public Defender Stephen D. Button said the caseload for his office increases annually.

“We’d like to see the state lift that burden from the county’s shoulders,” he said in a statement. “We’ve carried that weight long enough.”

The resolution is pending in Franklin County.

“Seven years ago, a national study found that we had five lawyers doing the work of 12. This is underscored by a recent state report that describes that same problem as applying across the state,” County Manager Thomas Leitz said. “Our public defender workload is further aggravated by New York’s unique court structure: with 19 town courts and three village courts, our lawyers spin like tops to get the job done. We desperately need the state to fully lift this burden from us.”

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