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Cuomo vetoes bills to bolster criminal defense for poor

New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is seen

New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is seen on on Jan. 3, 2017.  Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vetoed a widely supported measure that would have addressed the long-standing concern that low-income and indigent criminal defendants lack their constitutional right to an effective attorney.

The bill would have shifted much of the cost of paying for public defenders from counties to the state. Supporters of the measure say state resources are needed to make sure public defender offices are funded sufficiently and uniformly so that there is equal access to adequate representation in all parts of New York.

In Nassau County, one public defender can be assigned more than 400 cases a year.

“Unfortunately, an agreement was unable to be reached and the Legislature was committed to a flawed bill that placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers — with no way to pay for it and no plan to make one,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “As the governor said, this issue will be revisited this upcoming year.”

Bill Lipton, state director of the liberal Working Families Party that is influential in state and national Democratic politics, said Cuomo “missed a chance to demonstrate leadership and ensured that more New Yorkers will be unnecessarily and unfairly prosecuted and imprisoned.”

The measure that easily passed in the Legislature was prompted by a 2014 court case.

The state settled a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union that argued that the state was obligated to provide funding for public defenders. But the ruling only mandated state aid for Suffolk, Ontario, Schuyler, Onondaga and Washington counties, which were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Statewide, supporters of the bill said defendants represented by public defenders accept plea bargains at higher rates and have the attention of their lawyer less than defendants who hire private attorneys.

“Ten to 15 cases a day is not unusual,” said N. Scott Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County. In Nassau, the starting salary for the public defenders is $51,000 — $9,000 a year less than for assistant district attorneys, Banks said.

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