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Brooklyn Defender Services rallies for fair funding on National Public Defense Day

March 24, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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BROOKLYN — Brooklyn Defender Services was among the advocacy groups that rallied on Monday to celebrate National Public Defense Day and to mark the 60th Anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.

Gideon v. Wainwright was a historic decision that established the right to counsel for those unable to afford legal representation. Sixty years later, various advocacy groups, plus the New York State Bar Association, are wondering why the promise of Gideon has gone unfulfilled.

“This month marks the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark US Supreme Court decision that established the legal right to counsel for people accused of a crime who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” said a statement issued by the Brooklyn Defender Service. “As we celebrate what is now known as National Public Defense Day, we rallied alongside New York City public defense and civil legal service organizations to protect the right to counsel by bringing attention to the chronic underfunding of public defense and legal services.

“If left unaddressed, the underfunding of New York public defense organizations will further marginalize and disconnect hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from the legal and social services they need to survive. True public safety comes from investments that keep people in their homes, in their jobs, and with their families. The final New York State and City budgets must reflect the needs of low-income New Yorkers and properly fund public defense.”

The City’s six major public defender groups submitted a request to City Council on Monday asking for a bump in funding of at least $425 million, according to the NY Daily News. The groups cited a staffing crisis that they claim will keep them from fulfilling their duties.

Prosecutors have received attention for their concerns about the changes demanded by criminal justice reform, and have even partly attributed an increase in job turnover to the reforms. Responding to these concerns, Gov. Kathy Hochul allocated $40 million from the state budget last year for prosecutors to implement discovery reform, and has proposed an additional $47 million for district attorneys’ offices to hire hundreds of new prosecutors this year.

Despite requests from public defender organizations for parity funding, Gov. Hochul has not earmarked any new state money for criminal defense.

Public defense offices are still experiencing a significant loss of staff due to the economy-wide worker exodus, compounded by high workloads and lower salaries compared to their prosecutor and private practice counterparts. Earlier this month, over 1,000 members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys staged a protest to voice their grievances against their bosses and government officials.

The NYS Bar Association and its President Sherry Levin Wallach have used the 60th anniversary of Gideon in order to rally for the same cause and said the State has not fully embraced its responsibility of providing attorneys to the indigent.

“The New York State Bar Association has been a fierce advocate for access to justice and the right to counsel,” said Levin Wallach. “Today, we recognize the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright that guaranteed that indigent people accused of crimes will have legal representation. Sixty years later, New York State hasn’t allocated sufficient resources to meet this mandate.

“The longer this goes unresolved, the more those in need of counsel and their communities suffer. In reflecting on the import of this moment in history, we urge the state to fully embrace its responsibility.”

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