Public defenders demand raise after nearly 20 years

ALBANY — New York’s public defense attorneys are calling for more support from the state government, warning that public defense offices and assigned council programs are hemorrhaging attorneys after years of underfunding.

In a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, representatives of a number of defense and children’s rights attorneys groups said the state has not raised compensation rates for assigned counsel, the private defense attorneys who provide legal services to people who can’t afford their own lawyers, in nearly 20 years.

“At the end of the day, (assigned counsel is) making somewhere between $5 and $7 an hour to represent these clients,” said Kevin Stadelmaier, first deputy defender for the assigned counsel plan in Erie County. “This is what our state is telling us, that they deserve between $5 and $7; it’s completely and utterly unsustainable.”

March marks the 60th year since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that every criminal defendant has the right to legal counsel, and that one should be appointed to represent those who cannot afford to retain their own defense attorney.

In New York, counties have had the option to establish an office for public defenders, staffed by full-time attorneys whose job is to represent people who can’t hire their own attorneys, or to contract a legal aid society or private attorney through the local bar association to provide such services at the government’s expense. Compensation for private attorneys retained in this program has been set at $60 per hour for felony cases and $75 an hour for family court cases, meant to cover the entirety of their expenses for handling the case.

On Wednesday, defense lawyers from across the state said that is not nearly enough money. Public defense attorneys represent clients in about one-third of all felony and family court cases in New York, and their caseloads have been growing for years.

“In 2004, at the height of when the rates were raised, the Assigned Counsel panel in Erie County had 190 attorneys doing cases on the criminal side,” Stadelmaier said. “Today, we have 127. That’s a 33% decrease over 19 years.”

He said he is unable to recruit new attorneys to work on assigned counsel cases, because the pay rates are so low compared to other work available.

The defense attorneys said they would like to see a pay rate increase akin to what has been done with federal public defense attorneys; a $164-per-hour pay rate from the state, on top of the $60 to $75 paid by the counties for their services; and a statutory cost-of-living adjustment made annually to keep the pay rate current.

“I would like to tell you this is a ‘want,’ something we would really like to have,” he said. “And maybe five or six years ago when we were coming down to start asking for these rates to be increased, it was a want. It is no longer one. We absolutely need this. We will have programs go out of business. We will have clients not served, and we will have more backups than you’re already seeing in family court, which is already unsustainable.”

The public defenders have some allies in the state legislature as they push for this boost. Despite no raise included in the governor’s budget proposal for next year, both the Senate and Assembly have proposed some additional money for the program and some changes to the compensation scale, although not to as significant of a degree as the attorneys are requesting.

On Wednesday, Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, D-Manhattan, the chair of the New York’s Senate Judiciary Committee, said he agrees with the attorneys’ view that the state has not fulfilled its duty to represent those who can’t afford their own attorneys.

“We have truly failed as a state government to provide the resources in order to make quality representation for low income defendants possible, and we have to fix that in this budget,” he said.

He said he is pushing to see the compensation levels raised, and is working to ensure his colleagues understand the importance of a robust public defense program.

Hoylman-Sigal introduced a resolution on the Senate floor Wednesday, recognizing the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that created modern public defender programs. “I have this resolution here,” he joked. “But I know you prefer a check.”


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