The brokenness of America’s criminal justice system is not just an urban issue. Working class defendants in small towns across America are vulnerable to system that does not protect them from government negligence.
For example, New York’s state legislature approved new indigent defense measures last week that finished an almost decade long battle over statewide indigent defense problems. The case began with a 2007 lawsuit by the NY Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several indigent defendants (Hurrell-Harring et al. v. State of New York). The Hurrell-Harring case was settled in 2014, but only brought indigent defense reform to 5 of the 57 counties in New York. The New York state senate unanimously approved to extend the reforms statewide and will take effect once it is signed by Governor Cuomo. The new measures will take the burden of paying for indigent defense services off counties and place them entirely on the state. The bill has received praise from around the state because it will help many counties provide better services for indigent defense in the future.
New York, like many other states, does not have a statewide system of indigent defense. In New York, each county provides the resources for indigent defense which results in some of the poorest counties falling far short of providing just trials for defendants. If the quality of defense differs from one county to another the system would seem to be providing adequate defense to some indigents. Before Hurrell-Harring, a 2006 New York State Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services report found that, “nothing short of major, far-reaching, reform can ensure that New York meets its constitutional and statutory obligations to provide quality representation to every indigent person accused of a crime or other offense.”
St. Lawrence County’s public defender, Steven G. Ballan, told New York’s Watertown Daily Times that, “the measure should lead to more equitable indigent defense around the state and provide some fiscal relief for poor counties because the costs will spread over the entire state.” The bill will save local taxpayers money and help counties provide the same quality of defense for indigents. The article further quoted Mr. Ballan saying, “There’s a large disparity now between what indigent defense services are offered in wealthy counties compared with poorer counties…public defenders in some more affluent counties have lower case loads and have funds to hire support staff including investigators, social workers, caseworkers and substance abuse counselors.” This problem in New York is the same as it is across the U.S.; the richer the area, the more likely defendants will receive a better defense.
Without a proper defense and the proper resources to decided cases, many cases in the poorest counties suffer from a lack of proper information about a criminal case. This leads to a higher chance of conviction for innocent defendants and a higher chance of acquittal for those that are actually guilty. With the new measures approved and taking effect over the next seven years, New York’s new system will allow for counties to receive the same funding and provide the same quality of defense for those that need public counsel.
Here’s the big problem: is shifting the burden to counties necessarily any better?