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St. Lawrence County spearheads state takeover of legal services for poor

St. Lawrence County Attorney's office
St. Lawrence County Attorney Stephen Button

New York State appears poised to take over funding of legal services for people who can’t afford a lawyer. The St. Lawrence County Attorney led the statewide push, which could save counties millions of dollars. Advocates say the change will ensure better representation for poor people in criminal cases.

More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states must provide an attorney to people accused of crimes who can’t afford one. But it didn’t stipulate how the system should work exactly. So a handful of states, including New York, pushed it off to individual counties and said, hey, you deal with it, and pay for it.

Today, St. Lawrence County taxpayers, for example, pay $2.3 million a year for what is known as indigent legal defense, which includes the budgets of the public defender's and conflict defender's offices, as well as assigned counsel.

St. Lawrence County Attorney Stephen Button said the county-by-county system is not fair. Although clients in some counties may get speedy, quality justice, those in less well-funded counties may not meet their lawyers until they arrive at the courtroom; short-staffed public defenders offices may put off hearings for months.

"There has been a disparity between the services provided in certain counties and the services provided in others," Button said.

Button initiated a statewide movement for Albany to offer mandate relief and take over funding indigent defense. It looks like he may be successful. Budget bills in both the Assembly and Senate include a phased-in state takeover of the funding over seven years, starting next year. Button said he heard Gov. Andrew Cuomo approves, too.

"It is hugely important that we have a level playing field, not only a social justice perspective, but also from a financial perspective," Button said.

The bills have bipartisan support from the North Country’s Albany delegation. State Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Oswegatchie) called the shift “vitally important mandate relief” for the North Country’s cash-strapped county governments. The effort is also backed by the state association of counties and the New York State Bar Association.

The price tag for Albany is hefty. The overall cost could run anywhere from $200-450 million a year. But Button said it’s worth it to ensure equal justice for all.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.