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Our view: Get indigent defense bill signed into law

Our view: Get indigent defense bill signed into law

  • Updated
Legal Expenses

With only a few weeks left in 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reviewed hundreds of bills passed by the state Legislature during its January-to-June session. The Legislature sends the approved legislation to the executive chamber to sign into law or veto in small batches throughout the summer and fall, and now about 25 bills remain unsent.

Most are small in scope, but at least one has tremendous importance for property taxpayers throughout the state, including Cayuga County. That's the bill unanimously approved by the Legislature to have the state gradually take over the responsibility of paying for legal defense of people charged with a crime who cannot afford an attorney.

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision decades ago requires states to cover indigent defense costs, but New York has long passed the bulk of that responsibility onto counties.

The results have been a legal defense system statewide with significant inconsistencies, along with a major unfunded mandate for county governments that in recent years have been constrained by the state-imposed property tax cap.

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For the sake of a better justice system in New York and of much-needed help for cash-strapped counties, the Legislature needs to get this bill to the governor soon and he needs to sign it into law.

Cayuga County Administrator Suzanne Sinclar wrote in support of this law over the summer, and she provided some concrete evidence of how it would help the county taxpayers: "While the relief will be phased in over the next six years and relief will not begin until 2018, when fully implemented in 2023, the bill will reduce the amount Cayuga County pays in state-mandated services by between $800,000 and $1 million."

At a time when state law caps Cayuga County's tax levy increase under 1 percent, that's significant future savings to look forward to.

But if it doesn't  become law, it's an expense that will only grow. The state is actually phasing in new income standards for who is eligible for indigent defense assistance, and that will add to what is already a substantial state-ordered expense.

For good reason, the New York State Association of Counties supports the measure. “This bill accomplishes three objectives," NYSAC President William Cherry has said. “This bill accomplishes three objectives. It provides real and meaningful mandate relief for counties and property taxpayers. It protects taxpayers from costly and unnecessary lawsuits against New York’s public defense program. And, it improves legal defense services for the poor in all counties in the state.”


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