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Big changes looming for indigent defense Public Service Committee told

By Billie Owens

The system that helps poor New Yorkers with their legal troubles is in flux. Genesee County, like the majority of others statewide, is awaiting new caseload/workload standards for indigent defense to be brought forward and there is uncertainty about how the state will fund, or even IF it will fund, any resulting cost increases.

Randy Zickl, the attorney who handles the county's assigned attorney program, made a presentation Monday at the Public Service Committee meeting, which was held in the new terminal at the County Airport. After 12 years on the job, Zickl is retiring and a new administrator is being sought.

GC Public Defender Jerry Ader provided a review of his office. 

While the Public Defender’s Office normally provides legal services to the indigent, occasions arise in which two or more such people are accused of involvement in the same crime. This can result in a conflict of interest for the Public Defender’s Office. To avoid that, courts assign private counsel who receive compensation as set by the state and that is the program that Zickl oversees.

For the past four or five years, the county has contracted with Buffalo Legal Aid for indigent defense, and it was roundly praised, but it will not be the contract provider in the near term because of a bidding issue.

The number of court cases handled by the Public Defenders Office in Genesee County has remained relatively flat from year to year, in the annual range of 500 to 550. Annual assigned attorney expenses are down, however: $20,000 in Family Court; $10,000 in Criminal Court.

The question was raised about whether it would be worthwhile to establish a Conflict Defender Office, like the one in Monroe County, to help reduce further costs. Private attorneys represent clients in all felony matters and in the local criminal courts where the Public Defenders Office has a conflict of interest and cannot represent the client. (In Monroe County, CD attorneys also represent clients in Rochester City Court misdemeanor cases, Monroe County Family Court cases and appellate cases in all courts where the Monroe County Public Defender's Office has a conflict of interest and cannot represent the client.)

"The longer you have it, the Conflict Office will (eventually) be conflicted out," said Committee Member and Legislature Chairman Ray Cianfrini. "It can really create a problem in a small town."

Why? Because inevitably Party A knows Party B, who is related to Party C, who is married to Party D, who operates a business with Party E. 

And initial cost-savings, expenses actually increase over time, said County Manager Jay Gsell.

New regulations could change everything anyway, noted Public Service Committee Chair Marianne Clattenburg.

But Ader said the state will undoubtedly want more than assigned counsel in some cases, along with new standards, more training and a change in allowable caseload numbers, but it's not sure what those benchmarks will be.

"They are very good at creating standards and then saying 'handle them,' " Clattenburg said, "...and 'pay for them.' "

Among the changes proposed are more streamlined arraignments with fewer justices in fewer towns and villages, but that will require legislation to enact.

Another proposed change is in the standard for mimimum face-to-face client/attorney contact, Ader said. There must be at least one visit by the assigned attorney to the place where a felony defendant is in custody. Attorneys who handle such cases will "voucher" the expenses for that. Unlike a defendant's physician, who can teleconference/videoconference a meeting and have it meet legal protocols, the attorney cannot do so.

"I have a client in Westchester and I go down and visit her and the equipment is all set up for a teleconference with her doctor, but I can't do that," Ader said.

Several agreed that "It absolutely makes no sense."

The impetus for a slow and systematic overhaul of New York's indigent defense was prompted by NY Civil Liberties Union litigation in 2010 on behalf of indigent criminal defendants against five counties -- Ontario, Onondaga, Washington, Schuyler and Suffolk. (Hurrell-Harring et al v State of New York, 15 NY 3d 8 (May 6, 2010) It alleged New York’s indigent defense system was inadequate in ensuring the constitutional right to counsel.

Subsequently, the NYS Office of Indigent Legal Services was created and its representatives began analyzing and monitoring the standards, practices, caseloads and shortcomings of the system with a goal of increasing efficiency, eliminating deficiencies, and better meeting the obligation of counsel to those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves. Excessive caseloads, lack of adequate support services and training, an inability to hire full-time defenders, and too-minimal client contact were among the biggest concerns brought to light.

Ader noted that a female in the Public Defenders Office gave notice on Monday and that will mean an increase in cases for others in the office until a replacement is hired.

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