Criminal Defense Bar Sounds Alarm Concerning Uninformed, ‘Radical’ Changes to New York City’s Indigent Defense System
Washington, DC (March 1, 2010) – The Mayor’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator for the City of New York issued a request for proposals in February, with a short March 15, 2010, deadline, that contemplates a sudden and severe change abolishing the role of appointed assigned counsel in the City’s indigent defense delivery system. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), through its indigent defense project, is concerned that without adequate study, consultation and public hearings, such a significant disruption in the manner by which indigent defense counsel is provided in the City of New York may contribute to, rather than ameliorate, a system already at the breaking point.
At its quarterly meeting last week, NACDL’s Board of Directors passed a resolution opposing any swift change to the city’s current, balanced indigent defense system and urged studies, consultations, and hearings on any such proposed changes. The board resolution points out that in connection with any proposed change to the current system, it is critical to examine matters such as excessive caseloads, compensation, protection against conflicts of interest, training for lawyers and proper oversight.
“Any significant change to the indigent defense system in the City of New York, particularly one as radical as that now being contemplated by Mayor Bloomberg’s office, should come only after careful study, consultation and hearings,” explained William P. Wolf, a Cook County Assistant Public Defender in Chicago and co-chair of NACDL’s Indigent Defense Committee. “This is about much more than a budget line item in a challenging economic environment. What’s at stake are the well-established constitutional rights of the rapidly growing ranks of poor persons and the unambiguous constitutional responsibility of New York to ensure that indigent persons accused of a crime enjoy their Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. It is critical to acknowledge that increasing defender caseloads will lead to overworked lawyers and increased risk of conviction for the innocent, a cost that society cannot afford.”
Added NACDL President Cynthia Hujar Orr, “Across the nation, we are witnessing a deeply troubling squeeze of constitutional dimensions on already overburdened indigent defense delivery systems. In all their forms, programs everywhere are in a state of crisis with overwhelming demand and unacceptable cuts in resources. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to abolish the role of appointed counsel in the City of New York, in what has historically been a dual system that relied on both the private bar and public defender offices, without the benefit of any serious investigation and public discussion, risks degrading further an already overburdened system.”
NACDL, the nation’s largest criminal bar association, urges the City of New York not to change course without a meaningful study of the proposed changes, including substantive consultations and hearings exploring the range of critical issues implicated by the proposal.