Offsetting costs of public defenders

Albany County gets $656k grant for Counsel at First Appearance program

— People aren’t always arrested at convenient times during the day, and the majority of those facing criminal charges can’t afford a lawyer. Albany County, though, has received funds to offset costs of public defenders being called in the middle of the night.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced the county was awarded $656,000 of state grant funding for the Counsel at First Appearance Project on Wednesday, Feb. 19. The state Office of Indigent Legal Services provided the three-year grant, which helps the county provide legal representation during arraignment to those who cannot afford an attorney. Albany County was one of 25 counties applying for the grant, with all awarded funding from the $12 million grant program.

“Basically, 80 percent of people that get prosecuted can’t afford an attorney,” McCoy said. “This money will definitely help us offset the cost at night.”

Counties are required to provide legal representation if someone can’t afford an attorney, but often an arraignment would proceed without an attorney present.

In his 2012 State of the Judiciary report, state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman described the lack of representation during arraignment as a “disturbing practice.”

“It is greatly troubling and entirely unacceptable that newly-arrested defendants can be arraigned before a judge, have bail set, and be incarcerated — all without a lawyer present,” Lippman said in the report. “It is so basic to fundamental fairness that criminal defendants are represented, at every critical stage of the process, by qualified counsel.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in 2007 for allegedly failing to provide counsel to the poor. In December, the State Supreme Court in Albany ruled the lawsuit would proceed to trail. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 20 residents across Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler and Washington counties.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman expressed confidence the lawsuit would prevail in trial.

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