Gideon v. Wainright & New York’s Public Defense System

Forty-one years after Gideon v Wainwright, the historical United States Supreme Court decision that affirmed the constitutional right to counsel and mandated that states provide counsel to eligible individuals, New York State’s public defense system is facing a crisis of epidemic proportions. Increasingly, systemic failures such as inadequate funding, lack of uniform standards and oversight are leading to the erosion of quality representation. Currently, New York State has no statewide governing body to oversee the implementation of public defense services.

The limited oversight that exists in this state is inadequate and disjointed. Counties do not follow uniform standards or plans. Further, there are more than 100 different public defense service programs throughout the state, varying in size, scope, staffing, salary and caseloads. Absent comprehensive oversight, there is no mechanism that assures that individuals receive Constitutionally-mandated competent public defense services. The creation of the Independent Public Defense Commission would establish a uniform state plan and standards to ensure quality public representation.

The constitutional mandate that requires the state to provide public defense services has left counties with the burden of shouldering a disproportionate share of costs. County public defense services programs are being undermined in part because of inconsistencies in state funding. Counties struggle to provide quality public defense services under strict budget constraints. Unable to rely on the state for consistent and sufficient funding, counties are forced to ration out public defense services. This jeopardizes the client’s constitutional right to receive efficient and effective representation.

New York State needs a model for providing public defense services that relieves the heavy fiscal burden placed on counties by the current system while ensuring quality legal representation, accountability, and efficiency in providing those services.

Without quality controls such as caseload limits, training requirements, and other standards, ineffective and inefficient public defense will continue to damage not only the clients but the whole criminal justice system. The lack of early representation will continue to delay access to Constitutional rights, and the lack of effective and efficient representation will continue to deny constitutional promises outright.

Meeting the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services and establishing an Independent Public Defense Commission empowered to create and enforce standards regarding selection, training, workload, and performance of public defense lawyers, as well as eligibility of clients has become a necessity.

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