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Suffolk gets $5.2 million for legal services for poor

A decade after the New York Civil Liberties Union first sued the state for failing to properly defend the poor in local courts, Suffolk County finally is about to receive $5.2 million to improve criminal legal services for defendants who are unable to pay.

A legislative resolution to accept the state grant comes as part of a settlement of the lawsuit, in which Suffolk, and upstate Onondaga, Schuyler and Washington counties were also defendants. All will now get more state funding.

Annual state payments to improve legal services to the poor are to continue through 2023 under the settlement. Cuomo’s proposed budget also calls for the state to begin to pick up those costs for all counties outside New York City.

“After decades of insufficient funding, we will be getting the proper resources,” said Laurette Mulry attorney in charge of the Suffolk Legal Aid Society. “It will go a long way to creating an equal playing field for those who cannot afford their own counsel.”

The suit, filed in 2007, was settled on the eve of trial in 2014 after the NYCLU alleged that the state and counties violated due process rights of indigent defendants through a patchwork system of understaffed attorneys with few resources.

The suit, Hurrell-Haring v. New York, said those defendants often were arraigned without attorneys; urged to take plea bargains regardless of the facts in their cases; faced excessive bail and were kept in jail for long periods even for petty crimes.

The settlement ensures poor criminal defendants will have an attorney at their first court appearance when pleas are entered and bail is set; sets caseload limits for legal aid lawyers and funds hiring of more attorneys and support staff.

For the first year, $4.7 million of the state grant will go to the Suffolk Legal Aid. The money will fund more attorneys; paralegals; investigators; social workers and office staff. The money also will go to set up an East End satellite office and additional office space in Central Islip.

Mulry said the funding will pay to increase the staff of 108 lawyers by 23, who largely will be assigned to the crowded District Courts.

Legal Aid also will be able to hire 18 more support staff, Mulry said. The extra staff will allow the agency to bring down the caseload for lawyers in District Court from about 500 cases a year to 367. Legal Aid handles 30,000 cases a year.

The Suffolk County Assigned Counsel Defender Program, which uses private attorneys to handle murder cases and other court appearances where Legal Aid has a conflict, will get $742,000. The program will hire a full-time, full time administrator and increase support staff, adding a Spanish interpreter and an investigator.

“It’s very important for providing fair and quality services,” David Besso, administrator of the Assigned Counsel program, said of the new funding. “It upholds the standard of justice that makes society run.”

Payments to counties have been taken time to materialize because the Office of Indigent Legal Services was put in charge of administering the settlement and each county involved was required to present and get approval for plans for how they intended to improve services.

Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown said the state grants will significantly bolster funding of Legal Aid, which was originally budgeted for $12.5 million this year and the Assigned Counsels, which are budgeted for $4.2 million.

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