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Demonstrators demand funds for legal services for the poor

Karen DeWitt
Protesters fighting for more legal aid funding outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office Tuesday.";

Eight protesters were arrested outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office Tuesday as they called for more money for legal aid services for the state’s poorest.

Protesters chanted, “What do we want? Lawyers,” and blockaded an entrance to Cuomo’s suite of offices at the Capitol.

After years of what critics say was underfunding legal aid for New York’s lowest-income people, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill in 2016 to create a state-funded system to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive legal representation, as is their right under the U.S. Constitution.

Currently, most individual counties pay the costs of legal defense. Cuomo held the legislation until New Year’s Eve and then vetoed it, saying it would shift $800 million in costs to state taxpayers and that reform is needed first to bring the price down.

Cuomo has proposed a new plan in his budget that he said will offer more accountability.

Terrell Jones with VOCAL-NY said he’s tired of waiting. He accused Cuomo of favoring the wealthy over the poor.

“Mr. Cuomo is the governor for the rich,” Jones said. “And we the poor people can’t even get a lawyer to defend us in jail.”

Demonstrators blocked the entrance to the governor’s offices, and eight were arrested.

Cuomo was in Albany but did not comment. His spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, said the protesters’ accusations are off-base, and he called the demonstration “performance art” that disregards the “facts.”

“Expanding this administration's landmark commitment to Indigent Legal Services statewide is in the budget, as is extending the millionaires’ tax,” Azzopardi said. “Also, no governor has closed more New York prisons than this one.”

In his budget, Cuomo has proposed extending a temporary income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires later this year.

Five upstate counties already receive full funding for legal services from the state, the result of a lawsuit that state officials settled with the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2014.

VOCAL-NY’s Jeremy Saunders said his group is not unfairly critical of the governor, and they want to encourage Cuomo when they think he’s doing the right thing.

He said, for instance, that it’s great that Cuomo wants to extend the extra tax on millionaires, but he’d like to see the governor go further and agree to a plan by Assembly Democrats to add higher tax brackets for those making more than $5 million and $10 million, topping out at $100 million.

“It’s good that he’s renewing the tax,” said Saunders, who said more money is needed for indigent legal services and for “cuts that are going to come from the federal government under President Trump.”

Cuomo’s made no provisions in his budget for federal funding cuts.

The group also is seeking the legalization of marijuana, saying the prosecutions and convictions of low-level pot possession can harm a person’s future chances for a good job. The governor’s spokesman said decriminalization of marijuana is already in the state spending plan.

But Saunders said, just like proposals to provide legal services for the poor, it’s taking too long. He said Cuomo first promised to lessen penalties for marijuana possession when he was running for re-election for governor nearly three years ago and made a commitment to the left-leaning Working Families Party.

“Why is he still talking about the need to end low-level marijuana arrests when that was one of the progressive commitments?” Saunders asked.

Saunders blamed Cuomo for not trying hard enough to elect more Democrats to the state Senate in the past election cycle. Cuomo did back some Democratic candidates in 2016, but in the end, the GOP lost just one incumbent seat.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.