EDITORIAL: This state funding is unjust

WHAT WOULD YOU DO with an extra $2 million? Down payment on a private jet? Beachfront mansion, perhaps? How about a lawyer? Would you invest it in legal services?

Robert Linville would. He doesn’t need a lawyer. He is one. He’s the Columbia County public defender and he wants that money from the state, not for himself but for his office.

He and other public defenders serve as the lawyers for people accused of a crime who can’t afford to hire a private attorney. County taxpayers and state grants cover the cost of legal services in this county and most other counties around the state. Don’t blame local lawmakers for this setup. The original troublemakers were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and their crowd. They wrote it into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights (number six of the ten), which says in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

It took the Supreme Court until 1963 and its landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright to require that states provide lawyers for indigent defendants. And even that didn’t guarantee an adequate number of public defenders and support services like investigators and expert witnesses.

A decade ago a report commissioned by Judge Judith Kaye, then the chief judge of New York State’s highest court, found that statewide the public defender system was not only failing to serve the people who need it most–the poorest defendants–it also had another set of collateral victims. According to the report to Judge Kaye, “The current method of providing indigent defense services in New York imposes a large unfunded mandate by the State upon its counties….”

So this isn’t about legal gobbledygook; it’s about county property taxes paying for a service that should instead be paid for as part of the state budget. What a surprise, huh?

The annual budget for the Columbia County Public Defender’s office is $1.1 million. About $450,000 comes from state grants, which leaves county taxpayers on the hook for roughly $660,000. Could we use that money to reduce property taxes or improve other county services while providing even better legal representation for indigent defendants?

The answer is yes and no, and it involves counties that have already received a $2-million public defender windfall from the state. That’s the amount that each of five counties around the state will receive from the state budget for the next seven years to improve legal services to indigent people charged with a crime. The money is part of an agreement to settle a suit brought against the state by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

How much does Columbia County get from the settlement? Not a penny. More than 50 other counties around the state were also frozen out of the agreement.

Mr. Linville doesn’t claim we have a worse shortage of legal services available to impoverished defendants than the counties getting the $2 million legal aid money. He’s talking about fairness both to defendants and taxpayers. A couple of million bucks would mean improvements in service to defendants here as well as the elimination of the public defender as a line item in the county budget.

It’s not as if the settlement money is going only to counties with large populations, where the problems are much greater in scale. Of the five winners in this “lottery,” three do have more residents than Columbia, but one, nearby Washington County, has exactly the same population we do, and the remaining county, Schuyler, is less than a third our size.

Mr. Linville has a proposal to improve the chances that Columbia County will share in future funding like that already available to the five counties in the settlement. He wants our county Board of Supervisors to adopt a resolution agreeing to join with other counties around the state in a lawsuit designed to force the state to fund the whole public defender system statewide and all its related services.

The measure was approved in committee and the county Board of Supervisors should adopt it.

We can’t afford a legal system that deprives the poorest criminal defendants of the legal counsel our Constitution guarantees. Failure to meet this obligation tarnishes the justice system. Right now, state funding identifies poor defendants in Columbia County as less deserving of representation than defendants in the five funded counties. They are not. Nor are property taxpayers here any less worthy of tax relief.

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