Governor vetoes bill that aimed to reform public defense system

Local News

As 2016 came to a close, Governor Andrew Cuomo faced a flurry of criticism from county leaders across the state when he vetoed a bill that would have altered the public defense system.

State Senator John DeFrancisco says he had widespread support for a bill giving the state responsibility to fund legal services for indigent clients, people who can’t afford legal services.

In New York, counties currently foot the bill. With criminal cases, representation is an American right.

“Of course one of the strongholds of our constitution is that even poor persons would have adequate representation,” explains defense attorney Michael Vavonese.

Vavonese has represented many clients in Onondaga County, where he says judges use a list of private attorneys who have agreed to take on indigent cases at a much lower rate than private clients pay. He believes that system works better than many others.

Some counties may choose to fund a Public Defender’s Office, where critics say a small group of attorneys are often overburdened by the workload.

Either way, counties with less money…may leave defense attorneys with more obstacles.

“They may be restricted, number one – the time they can expend on that case, the resources they can expend on the case including hiring experts and doing investigations and things of that nature,” Vavonese explains.

The limitations have fueled criticism from groups that say poor defendants are at the mercy of their zip codes, heightening racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Part of DeFrancisco’s bill reads:

Mandating counties to finance the state’s obligation to provide indigent legal services imposes a significant uncontrollable financial burden on counties dependent on real property taxes to fund needed services, and subject to a state imposed tax cap.

After five counties, including Onondaga County, were named in a lawsuit (Hurrell-Harring et al. v. State of New York et al.) challenging their level of services to poor defendants, the state settled the case by boosting support for those specific counties.

The State Senator says his bill could have avoided more legal challenges.

“The five (counties) brought a lawsuit and got a benefit from that lawsuit. The other counties shouldn’t have to bring a lawsuit to get the same benefits,” Sen. DeFrancisco said.

Legislators agreed and supported the bill.

While the Governor’s veto says the need for reform is clear, he suggests the bill blindly hands the state with an unreasonable burden.

The right of representation comes with a hefty pricetag.

Part of the veto memo reads:

Rather than clearly extending the settlement terms of Hurrell-Harring to all counties throughout the State, this bill would require the State to ultimately expend more than $800 million dollars every year – of which nearly $650 million is entirely unrelated to the Hurrell-Harring agreement – to fully reimburse counties for all expenses associated with non-criminal legal defense work, including legal services in family court and surrogate court. This bill would do little more than transfer to the taxpayers of this State an entirely new obligation to pay for any and all existing expenses related to general defense legal work, far beyond legal representation of indigent criminal defendants.

Governor Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi accused legislators of committing to a flawed bill despite attempts to negotiate changes before a vote. But, he also reiterated the Governor’s intention to revisit the issue in the upcoming year.

Sen. DeFrancisco says he had a phone coversation with the Governor, recapping his concerns.

“The Governor believes that the bill went too far. All right. He vetoed it. He’s willing to go forward and continue discussions so we can get that application throughout the state and hopefully we can do it during this budget process,” the Senator adds.

Either way, Onondaga County is poised to gain support from the state, according to a statement from County Executive Joanie Mohoney:

As a result of the Hurrell-Harring decision, cited by Governor Cuomo in his veto message, Onondaga County is already uniquely positioned to receive several million dollars in state funds to support and strengthen the availability and quality of legal services for indigent persons. Our County’s system of providing representation for indigent defendants is community based and Onondaga County is fortunate to have a pool of talented lawyers who are committed to providing outstanding legal services to the indigent. Onondaga County welcomes the opportunity to partner with the State to find ways to further augment and develop our indigent legal services program and maximize this significant state funding to benefit our community.

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