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Civil Liberties report: State's public defender system 'disgraceful'

Criminal defendants in New York State who cannot afford a lawyer get inadequate representation because the state fails to properly fund its public defender system, a civil liberties report charged Wednesday.

Public defenders have been known to carry up to 420 felony cases at a time -- almost triple the caseload recommended by legal experts -- and sometimes don't see their clients before the first court appearance, the New York Civil Liberties Union report said.

"New York has turned its back on decades of studies and official reports warning that indigent defendants are consistently denied their right to counsel," the report said. "As a result, justice in New York often is available only for those who can afford it."

The civil rights group said it collected evidence about the "disgraceful state" of the public defender system during the past seven years. The report was part of the pretrial discovery process in its 2007 lawsuit seeking to force the state to provide adequate legal representation to poor defendants. That suit is set to go to trial before Judge Gerald Connolly in state Supreme Court in Albany on Oct. 7.

Suffolk was cited in the suit as one of five counties that are examples of how the public defense system has failed. The report said that in the Suffolk Legal Aid Society, 11 attorneys in the County Court Bureau each carried an average of 255 felony cases in 2010. Lawyers for poor people in Suffolk, in 2010 and 2011, used experts or investigators to help defend clients in only 17 cases out of 10,000 cases examined, the report said.

Suffolk County officials declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.

Nassau and New York City are not defendants in the suit and weren't cited in the report.

The state attorney general's office, which is defending the state in court, referred questions to the governor's office, which declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The lawsuit was dismissed by a midlevel appeals court, but was reinstated by the state Court of Appeals in 2010. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for the majority, acknowledged that fixing the system might require additional funding or shifting of resources to meet the state's "essential obligation" to provide an adequate defense for poor defendants.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright mandated adequate legal representation for indigent criminal defendants, and in 1965, New York created a system placing the burden for such legal defense on the counties.

The new report said counties now pay 75 percent to 90 percent of the cost of defending the indigent and "that equation must be flipped," so that the state bears the majority of the cost. "As a progressive leader of a politically progressive state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo should recognize the travesty that New York began decades ago and take immediate steps to correct it," the report said.

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