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Grants help hire lawyers for poor defendants

ALBANY -- Upstate New York counties can now tap $12 million to provide lawyers for poor defendants at arraignment, a hole in the justice system some jurisdictions have started to fill, the state's top judge said yesterday.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said New York courts have made progress since he raised the arraignment issue two years ago. Mostly a rural phenomenon, it was reportedly routine in some town and village courts for indigent defendants to go without counsel at that crucial first step in a criminal case -- a proceeding where defendants can be sent home or to jail.

Since Lippman brought up the issue, seven counties have established programs that have represented more than 5,000 poor defendants at arraignment.

"The goal I stated at that time was to make representation at arraignment the norm in New York as it is in many parts of the country," Lippman said. "While that may have seemed unrealistic or a dream at the time, today that dream is fast becoming the reality in New York -- across our entire state."

The $12 million in state grants are available for suburban and rural communities in up to 25 counties. In his Law Day address yesterday, Lippman noted the 50-year-old constitutional promise of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, concluding a competent defense lawyer is required for a fair trial.

"We cannot and will not allow Gideon -- arguably the greatest achievement in the history of our nation's criminal justice system -- to become an empty promise," he said.

Over the past two years, state officials have taken several other steps to assure fair trials for poor defendants.

The Statewide Indigent Legal Services Board has established standards and criteria for defense lawyers meant to help ensure quality and conflict-free representation.

Erie, Chautauqua, Westchester, Tompkins, Ontario, Albany and Onondaga counties have programs under way for lawyers at arraignments.

Under legislation enacted in 2009, calling for caseload limits for defense counsel, the state judiciary has adopted new court rules to establish standards for indigent defense. New case cap limits have reduced the average annual case load for the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense attorneys from 682 to 517 as of last November, he said.

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