UAlbany, New York Office of Indigent Legal Services Partner to Improve Legal Counsel for the Underserved

A new two-year study is based on the concept of ‘counsel at first appearance,’ which ensures arrested individuals have access to an attorney before their first court appearance.

ALBANY, N.Y. (October 2, 2014) -- The University at Albany announced today a partnership with the New York Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS) to jointly research the state of legal counsel available for the poor and underserved.

The two-year study based on the concept of ‘counsel at first appearance’ which ensures arrested individuals have access to an attorney before their first court appearance, seeks to determine if the indigent have the appropriate resources available to them at the right time.

The announcement comes on the heels of a New York Times report detailing a class-action lawsuit which accuses Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State of New York of perpetuating a system that violates the rights of people who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

“We know from our existing research that defendants often don’t have an attorney at all at their first appearance in court in upstate New York. That means you can be sent straight to jail without ever getting to talk to a lawyer about bail,” said Andy Davies, ILS Director of Research and co-investigator on the study. “The county ends up spending money to house you, while you risk losing your job and custody of your children before you’ve even met your attorney. We think that if we can connect people with appropriate counsel sooner, we can make the system fairer and more cost-effective.”

The project, funded by a $381,402 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) research grant, will focus on six upstate New York counties. It is designed to assess the impact of $12 million in funding from the NY Office of Indigent Legal Services to improve counsel at first appearance across the upstate area and is part of an ongoing research partnership between the UAlbany School of Criminal Justice and ILS.

“Upstate New York is the perfect place for this project,” said UAlbany School of Criminal Justice associate professor Alissa Pollitz Worden, and co-investigator on the study. “Almost all of the research on this issue has been conducted in big cities, but the reality of public defense across the nation is that much of it happens in small towns and rural places with lawyers who don’t even work in a formal public defender office. We just don’t know how to get defenders to people these areas, so that is what makes this study so valuable.”

In 2011, the state created the Office of Indigent Legal Services to help improve legal defense for the poor. Since then, the agency has funded twenty-five pilot programs in upstate New York to address the crisis in providing counsel at first appearance.

“This has been a critical priority for us ever since Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said that ‘the arraignment and pretrial jailing of defendants who are not represented by counsel is a fundamental failure that can no longer be tolerated in a modern, principles society governed by the rule of law,” said ILS Executive Director Bill Leahy. “We are delighted that with the support of an NIJ research grant, we’ll finally get the researchers into these counties to learn the truth about this problem and the difference we are making.”

Lippman, who is Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, also serves as the Chair of the Indigent Legal Services Board.

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