Legal advocates oppose $234M funding cut from public defense

Hochul's budget plan risks legal aid for New York's most vulnerable

March 22, 2024 Robert Abruzzese, Courthouse Editor
Gov. Kathy Hochul, whose proposed budget could significantly reduce access to legal representation for low-income New Yorkers, sparking widespread concern among legal aid organizations.Photo: Stefan Jeremiah/AP
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Legal services organizations across New York are rallying against a proposed budget measure that would redirect $234 million from the Indigent Legal Services Fund (ILSF) to the state’s general fund. 

The Chief Defenders Association of New York, alongside more than 70 public defense and legal service groups, including the Brooklyn Defender Services, has formally appealed to Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, emphasizing the necessity of these funds in providing essential legal representation to low-income residents.

“The ILS fund was created to ensure equity, justice, quality representation and family unification for indigent New Yorkers,” said a statement put out by the legal aid services. “The proposed sweep of $234 million undermines these goals and sets a dangerous precedent that will harm New Yorkers who depend on public defense. We collectively urge Governor Hochul, Assembly Speaker Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins to instead appropriate the funds in the ILSF for their intended purpose of improving public defense throughout New York State.”

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The outcry follows the governor’s decision to abandon a similar plan that would have cut $100 million from the IOLA Fund, which supports civil legal services. The proposed sweep of the ILSF — crucial for enhancing the quality of public defense in criminal and family courts — remains a contentious issue despite the Senate’s rejection of the move and its push for increased public defense funding. The Assembly and governor have yet to announce their stance.

Representatives from the concerned organizations argue that diverting ILSF resources compromises the fund’s mission to ensure equitable, high-quality legal representation for New Yorkers in need. “The proposed sweep of $234 million undermines these goals and sets a dangerous precedent that will harm New Yorkers who depend on public defense,” they stated.

The ILSF, established 20 years ago, supports critical legal services, including criminal defense, family court representation, constitutionally-mandated immigration advice and appeals process navigation. This funding is also seen as vital in protecting counties from the financial burden of public defense — a responsibility clarified by the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit settlement, which placed the onus on the state to fund constitutionally mandated public defense services.

According to the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), the governor’s budget proposal inaccurately reallocates ILSF monies, with $114 million directed towards state-assigned counsel and the remaining $120 million earmarked for the State General Fund. The NYSBA, advocating for the preservation of the ILSF, underscores the fund’s role in fostering improvements within New York’s public defense system and in alleviating the caseload pressures on criminal defense.

The executive budget’s reluctance to earmark increased funding from the ILSF for public defense, as requested by ILS for the FY 2024-25 budget, has raised concerns over the future quality of public defense services in the state, particularly in family courts.

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