The Constitution of the United States provides that in every criminal case, the accused shall enjoy the right to the assistance of counsel. Over fifty years ago, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainright the United States Supreme Court held that the state must provide a lawyer free of charge to any criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Likewise, the Supreme Court has held in Santosky v. Kramer that parents have a right to counsel in any case in Family Court, which could affect custody of their children.
These constitutional protections are meant to insure that in our courts there is equal justice for all, and not just for the rich.
Unfortunately, in Onondaga County, low-income people are denied their right to equal access to justice by failure to adequately fund legal services.
In New York State the duty to provide lawyers in criminal court and family court for low-income people has been delegated to the counties. In Onondaga County these legal services have been provided by the Assigned Counsel Program, which is funded by the county.
But for years Onondaga County’s Assigned Counsel Program (ACP) has consistently delayed and denied payment for lawyers representing poor people in criminal court and family court. There is no equal justice for the poor in our county.
ACP has also failed to provide payment for the services lawyers need to provide proper representation to their clients such as court-certified interpreters, private investigators, and other necessary experts.
The situation is so bad that Onondaga County was one of five counties in the state that was sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union in the case of Hurrell-Haring v. New York, for failing to provide adequate representation to poor defendants.
There was a glimmer of hope for justice in October of 2014 when the State and the five counties, including Onondaga County, agreed to a settlement in the Hurrell-Haring case. The state and the county agreed to reform their public defender system. The agreement required that there be funding for sufficient lawyers, investigators and support staff so that all poor defendants have lawyers with the time and support to vigorous represent their clients.
But the promises made have not been kept. The Onondaga county continues to provide insufficient resources and ACP continues to delay and deny payment for necessary and proper legal services and the constitutional guarantee of equal justice continues to be an illusion.
All people in our community, who care about justice, whether rich or poor, need to speak out about this issue. Please contact your elected officials at both the state and county level to urge them to keep their word, to reform our broken public defense system and to provide JUSTICE FOR ALL.
This article was brought and translated into Spanish by Suzie Carman