Poor Counties, Defendants Hurt Most In Cuomo’s Veto Of Public Defense Aid

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s logic in vetoing a state takeover of public defense programs across the state makes little sense.

“This bill would do little more than transfer to the taxpayers of this state an entirely new obligation to pay for any and all existing expenses related to general defense legal work, far beyond legal representation of indigent criminal defendants,” Cuomo said of the $800 million program in his veto message.

The governor can talk all he wants about the state Legislature not heeding his advice and incorporating his notes into the Public Defense Mandate Relief Act, but it appears the state Legislature understands one thing that Gov. Cuomo does not. Providing legal defense for the poor is the law of the land thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. Even more importantly, a fundamental issue of fairness to all who enter our legal system is being lost amidst the discussion of who pays for public defense.

Counties with high rates of poverty have seen the costs of public defender programs skyrocket over the years while counties that have lower rates of poverty and more corporate investment in their communities find themselves better able to manage the costs. That means poorer counties often don’t have the same ability to add public defenders as do counties with more resources at their disposal. Because counties have to live within the state’s 2 percent tax cap and have differing financial situations, the poor in some counties simply cannot receive the same legal defense as the poor in counties that have more money to spend.

Cuomo’s veto message said he will unveil a plan that ensures “that counsel at arraignment, caseload standard reform, and quality improvements are extended throughout the state, with appropriate tools to ensure accountability and results.” We certainly hope he does. There are times our criminal justice system does not work the way it should.

In addition to the way we handle criminal defense for those who can’t afford it, it takes an eternity to move cases through the system and the entire system seems to spend an inordinate time dealing with people who insist on breaking the law over and over again. It isn’t possible to fix those problems at the same time.

So, let’s start with New York living up to its obligation to the poor and ensuring that each and every person who qualifies for such services — regardless of the county in which they live — is treated equally.