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Supporters of legal services for the poor find a novel way to gain attention

Posted by Karen DeWitt on
Karen DeWitt

With lawmakers in Albany preoccupied with getting the budget done by week’s end, groups have to get creative to gain attention. Supporters of spending for public defense for the poor came up with one way- a wheel of fortune style game staged right in the middle of the action.

The New York Civil Liberties union chose a busy corridor in the Capitol between lawmakers’ offices and the Senate and Assembly chambers to hold a contest, featuring a brightly colored roulette wheel styled after the one on the iconic television show.

But the disc is called the Wheel of Justice, and instead of prizes, it stops on placards labeled “homeless”, “ruined”, and “death”.

“On every placard is a story about an actual case in New York, where the public defense system failed a person’s

right to counsel,” said Bob Perry is the New York Civil Liberties Union legislative director.  

In 2014, the Cuomo Administration settled a lawsuit, known as Hurrell- Haring v New York, with five counties in the state. A judge ruled that poor people accused of crimes were not getting their constitutionally guaranteed right to legal defense, as determined under the US Supreme Court decision Gideon v Wainwright.  The state agreed to fund all of the five counties’ costs for defense of the indigent. But the rest of the counties in the state still have to finance the public defense services, at an estimated cost of $400 million dollars a year.

The legislature approved a bill to eventually fund the counties’ costs by 2023, but it was vetoed by Governor Cuomo on New Year’s Eve.  The governor said it would cost too much, and he wanted to work out a new solution in 2017.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, takes a turn spinning the wheel and it lands on a placard labeled “Beaten Up”. It tells the tale of an Onondaga County man who the card says was “brutally” beaten by the police, and wrongfully charged with possessing a weapon. Because of a mistake in his defense case, the man pleads guilty even though he is innocent, and ends up in prison for eight years.

Fahey is hopeful, though, that more money for legal services for the poor will be part of the new state budget.

“I feel pretty good about it,” she said.

She says the remaining fight is over how much control Cuomo’s budget department has in handing out the funds, and whether the total cost for counties legal defense services would be financed by the state or only a portion. On Tuesday, the governor warned that “dramatic” budget spending increases are unaffordable, given threats of federal funding cuts in Washington, but he said he’d be willing to agree to “modest” increases.

“I guess everybody has a different definition of modest,” Fahy said.

Fahy has a couple more days to find out whether her version of the bill funding legal defense services is a winner, or not.  

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