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Bill seeks to improve public defense for poor facing charges

ALBANY — An unusual mix of conservatives and liberals, along with political, religious and legal authorities pushed Tuesday for a pending bill that would try to improve what they say is well-meaning but inadequate legal representation for low-income people facing criminal charges.

The groups say defendants who must rely on public defenders are getting disproportionately harsher sentences and are convicted more often than defendants who can afford to hire private attorneys.

The groups want the state to take over funding of public defender offices from counties over a period of seven years and provide resources that counties can’t afford.

The phase-in would begin in the 2017-18 budget when the state would have to reimburse counties for 25 percent of their costs for indigent legal services. No estimate of the cost to the state is contained in the bill.

A bill to enact the takeover passed earlier this year in the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature or veto. Cuomo had no immediate comment Tuesday on the bill.

Former Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, who had served as a priest in inner city neighborhoods, said one public defender can average 700 criminal cases a year, many with minority defendants. Many of the lawyers have insufficient time to investigate charges and defend clients, Hubbard said.

“The intent may not be spelled out in Jim Crowe language, but the impact of the policies remain the same: Racial disparity,” said Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany.

“Every citizen is entitled to protection,” Shaun Marie, executive director of the New York State Conservative Party. The party supports the counties and their taxpayers who Marie said are unfairly burdened by the cost of public defenders.

In a 2006, the state Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services concluded there was “a crisis in the delivery of defense services to the indigent throughout New York State and that the right to the effective assistance of counsel, guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions, is not being provided to a large portion of those who are entitled to it.”

In 2010, Cuomo created the Office of Indigent Legal Services to address such concerns.

In 2014, the state agreed to settle a lawsuit that resulted in the state paying for improvements in public defender services in five counties, including Suffolk, that sued.

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