October 21, 2014 / 9:21 PM / 5 years ago

New York state to settle landmark suit over public defenders

ALBANY N.Y. (Reuters) - New York state has agreed to settle a lawsuit claiming its public defense system is underfunded and violates poor people’s rights to counsel a day before the case was set to go to trial.

The state will establish a cap on the number of cases court-appointed attorneys may handle and will ensure defendants have lawyers at their first court appearance, among other reforms, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday.

The NYCLU sued the state in 2007 claiming that for 50 years New York has neglected its duty to provide attorneys to poor defendants by passing the job on to counties, which do not have the resources to ensure adequate representation.

As a result, the group said, defendants are often arraigned without attorneys, urged to take plea deals even if they have a potential defense and given long jail sentences for minor crimes.

Under the settlement, which is subject to court approval, the state will provide funding to ensure that lawyers have time to meet with their clients, visit them in jail and thoroughly investigate cases, the NYCLU said. Eligibility requirements will also be expanded so more New Yorkers qualify for court-appointed lawyers.

The agreement applies only to the five counties named in the suit - Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington - but will provide a template for future reforms statewide, said Corey Stoughton, the lead attorney on the case.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that the settlement “addresses longstanding inequities and ensures fulfillment of the constitutional promise of criminal defense counsel for those who cannot afford it.”

The suit drew the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a brief last month urging the judge presiding over the case to consider whether public defender offices were adequately funded and whether individual court-appointed attorneys handled too many cases.

After several delays, the case was scheduled to go to trial in state court in Albany on Wednesday. It would have been the first trial of its kind in the country.

It was not clear how much the agreement would cost, but Stoughton said statewide reforms would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars over several years.

Cuomo is expected to include some funding for the reforms in his next budget proposal, which is due in January.

The case is Hurrell-Harring v. the State of New York, New York State Supreme Court, Albany County, No. 8866-2007.

Reporting by Daniel Wiessner, editing by Ted Botha and Cynthia Osterman

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