Opinion

Bringing fairness to Nassau County and all of New York state

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An iron curtain came down recently between Nassau and Suffolk counties as a result of a lawsuit confirming that New York state fails to provide effective legal representation to low-income people in the justice system. On one side of the curtain, in Suffolk County, public defense programs are to receive significant state funding to end that failure; on the other side, underfunded indigent defense programs continue their struggle to provide effective legal assistance to Nassau County clients with mostly local funds.

Nassau county residents' staggering property taxes fund more than their local school districts - they fund obligations of the state such as mandated legal services for the indigent. Long Island currently spends $30 million annually providing legal counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney, but Suffolk County has been relieved of a portion of this burden as a result of the 2015 Hurrell-Harring settlement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now considering a bill passed by the Legislature – S.8114/A.10706 – that would incrementally reimburse all localities for the cost of public defense services, reaching 100 percent reimbursement at the end of a seven-year period. If the governor signs this into law, residents of Nassau County would begin to experience the justice that was promised to Suffolk County with last year's settlement. I urge the governor to bring fiscal fairness to both Nassau and Suffolk counties.

And the Public Defense Reform Act does more than relieve our constituents of a tax burden. It will change a ragged statewide patchwork of legal services into more consistent provision of quality representation. Currently, indigent defense services vary greatly in quality and type across New York State, and will continue to do so as long as funding comes primarily from local taxes. The right to counsel, a critical tool in ensuring justice for all, should not depend on the assessed value of local property or the willingness of local elected officials to spend tax dollars on this universal right.

Failure to provide sufficient funding leads to the deficiencies noted in the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit. Excessive caseloads prevent attorneys from spending the necessary time on investigating facts, conferring with clients, researching applicable law, preparing for court appearances, and filing pleadings. Attorneys are not provided in far-flung local courts for crucial first appearances, when pretrial release or detention is considered and bail terms, if any, are set. Financial eligibility determinations that should ensure counsel to all who cannot afford to hire a lawyer are manipulated to reduce numbers and therefore costs. Attorneys do not consult or call experts as witnesses in family or criminal court hearings and trials due to lack of funding, and must repeatedly request adjournments in a circular race from one case to the next. In these and other ways, the State's half-century long refusal to shoulder the costs of effective public defense has denied justice to thousands of clients.

That denial has fallen particularly heavily on people of color. As a member of the Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian Caucus, and a Long Island native, we have watched Nassau County grow into an increasingly diverse community. I understand how an adversarial relationship between communities of color and the justice system can destabilize families and communities. This is especially true when resources necessary to support our community in local courts are not available.

Despite the fact that African American and Hispanic/Latino defendants make up a relatively small portion of the population in Nassau County, they account for a large percentage of arrests and convictions. And families of color are at greater risk of being split by placement of children in foster care. When public defense lawyers representing those accused of crime or neglect lack resources to effectively advocate for their clients, people of color suffer disproportionately. The resulting pressure makes it difficult to establish the trusted attorney-client relationship, and easy for implicit bias to operate to clients' detriment.

Improving the quality indigent defense services will ameliorate many of these problems, to the benefit of all. I respectfully ask the governor to sign S.8114/A.10706.

Earlene Hooper is a state Assembly member representing parts of Nassau County.

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