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NYCLA Hails Report of Chief Judge’s Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense
Services as a “Defining Moment”- Urges Profession to Support Reform, But Seeks
Modifications to Ensure Independence and Adequate Funding
NEW YORK, NY – September 11, 2006 – The New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA) has endorsed the Report of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye’s Commission on the Future of Indigent Defense Services, calling it “a defining moment for indigent defense in this State.” The Report, issued on June 18, finds that New York’s indigent defense system “fails to satisfy the state’s constitutional and statutory obligations to protect the rights of the indigent accused” and calls for broad reform, including the creation of a statewide Indigent Defense Commission.
NYCLA endorses the Commission’s core recommendations and urges the profession to “close ranks and build bridges to the community at large in order to generate the necessary momentum to achieve lasting reform” In comments adopted by NYCLA’s Board of Directors, the Association cautions that “the legal profession, as custodians of our system of justice, should not squander this unique opportunity to achieve enduring reform.”
NYCLA’s extensive comments endorse each of the core recommendations promulgated by the Commission, while urging several key revisions in proposed to legislation:
> There must be a clear declaration that indigent persons have a fundamental right to high quality representation and that merely providing representation that is not constitutionally deficient is not adequate.
> A hybrid system of representation that includes both the private bar and institutional providers must be preserved.
> The proposed Indigent Defense Commission should be expanded to include up to 20 members, with commissioners to be selected upon recommendation of bar groups, law schools and community and civic organizations. At least 60 percent must have at least 10 years experience in providing representation to criminal defendants.
> To ensure local input and appropriate consideration for variations in the cost of living throughout the state, there should be at least one local Advisory Commission for each Judicial Department
> Representation must be available to pursue collateral proceedings following the direct appeal of conviction, with guarantees to safeguard the independence of appellate defenders.
>While endorsing the need for a comprehensive data-collection system, NYCLA calls for legislation to protect the confidentiality of individuals whose cases do not result in conviction and witnesses whose identity is not a matter of public record.
In one key departure from the Commission proposals, NYCLA opposes any expansion of the “plea-by-mail” procedures in New York City, whereby individuals can enter guilty pleas to petty offenses without appearing in court. Unless and until legislation is adopted to guarantee the complete decriminalization of these offenses and a prohibition on all collateral consequences, NYCLA opposes any expansion of this program. NYCLA further supports a decriminalization initiative and urges the Chief Judge to empanel a group to study excessive reliance upon the Penal Law and to propose remedial action.
In addition, the NYCLA report, echoing the concerns expressed by Commissioner Steven Zeidman, expressed deep concern with alarmingly high disposition rates, particularly at an accused’s first appearance.
NYCLA President Edwin David Robertson acknowledged, “NYCLA strongly endorses the initiatives for reform embodied in the Commission’s Report. I call on all members of our profession to unite in supporting these measures to assure justice for the indigent accused. As a profession, we must never dodge the duty to uphold our Constitution’s promise of equal access to justice for everyone – whether rich or poor. We can never allow justice to become a luxury available only to the affluent or the influential. If that occurs, then our legal system will be seen as little more than an instrument of oppression. That must never happen.”
The New York County Lawyers’ Association (www.nycla.org) was founded in 1908 as the first major bar association in the country that admitted members without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Since its inception, it has pioneered some of the most far-reaching and tangible reforms in American jurisprudence and has continuously played an active role in legal developments and public policy.
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