Counties press NY to pay more for rising costs of indigent legal expenses

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 3 October 2014 at 12:00 am

ALBION – In Orleans County, the costs for providing attorneys for poor residents has increased from a budgeted $493,983 in 2011 to $586,713 projected for this year.

State-wide other counties are seeing increases in the costs for legal services for the poor. Altogether, 57 counties outside New York City will spend about $175 for indigent legal services, with the state paying $35 million, said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.

In many other states, the cost is borne solely by the state. During its annual meeting last week, NYSAC leaders called on NY officials to have the state assume the full costs of indigent representation.

“Counties do the best they can to ensure that justice is carried out,” Acquario said. “The tax cap and other state mandated programs make it difficult for additional local resources to be added to this program from the local level. This is a state responsibility and the state should provide enhanced aid to ensure proper representation is afforded to all.”

The state and five counties have been sued in a class-action lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring et. al. v. State of New York, where plaintiffs accuse the state and five counties for inadequately representing the poor accused of crimes in the state.

The plaintiffs are seeking changes to the indigent defense system, Including a cap on caseloads for public defenders and uniform first arraignment counsel rights.

“The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that this is a state constitutional responsibility,” Acquario said.

He cited a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s, Gideon vs. Wainwright, that the right to counsel is fundamental in the United States, and that the states are responsible for providing lawyers for those who are unable to afford them.

However, in 1965 the state shifted the financial responsibility to counties, Acquario said, to the level where more than 80 percent of the costs is now on county taxpayers.