Concerns Raised About Size Of Public Defender’s Office

MAYVILLE – Chautauqua County is accepting millions of dollars of state funds to increase the staffing level at the county’s Public Defender’s Office. However concerns were raised regarding the size of the Public Defender’s Office compared to the District Attorney’s Office.

During Wednesday’s county legislature meeting, lawmakers unanimously accepted a nearly $16 million grant, which will run April 1, 2024 to March 31, 2027.

Before the vote, Legislator Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan, said he was in favor of the grant, but noted how much larger the Public Defender’s Office is getting. “I remember when the number of assistant district attorneys was roughly equal to the number of assistant public defenders. Today that ratio is about two to one in favor of the Public Defender’s Office. With the acceptance of this grant, the ratio increases to roughly three to one in favor of the Public Defender’s Office. I think at some point we may have to address this disparity,” he said.

Legislator Fred Larson, D-Jamestown, who was the Jamestown City Court Judge until he retired, explained the need for additional public defenders. “The courts of New York decided a few years ago that every individual at arraignment, even if you’re being arraigned on a simple shoplifting charge, and the judge is going to release you on your own recognizance, we judges can no longer arraign a defendant without a public defender being present,” he said.

A district attorney, Larson said, does not need to be present at those arraignments.

Larson said when he was a judge, he would arraign individuals on holidays, weekends, and evenings. “Some public defender had to join me on Easter morning at 9 o’clock, or Christmas morning or Christmas Eve. No DA has that obligation,” he said.

Because of this, the larger Public Defender staff is needed. “The burdens on the Public Defender’s Office are incredible, compared to six or seven years ago. That’s just the way it is,” he said.

Larson added that the one good thing with this arraignment requirement is that the state of New York is largely picking up the tab through grants like the one voted on Wednesday night.

Niebel responded that he agreed about the necessary staff for arraignment, but he expressed concerns regarding discovery rules for prosecutors. “This is just my observation, but I think the scales of justice have tilted more in favor of the public defender instead of the district attorney. I think at some point we may need to take a look at that and make an adjustment,” he said.

Larson again responded, saying that he agrees the discovery laws have made it more burdensome for the District Attorney’s Office.

The resolution to accept the grant funding was unanimously approved.


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