The Equalizer

All people charged with serious crimes are entitled to be  represented by defense attorneys, but one reality of New York State’s public  defense system is that poor and underserved defendants may be arraigned before  they even have a chance to speak with an attorney.

Hear More from Quilong MinThe failure to have counsel at a defendant’s first court appearance is one of a number of shortcomings in the state’s public defense system that have been highlighted recently and are being addressed through a variety of initiatives.

Assessing how well certain initiatives are working is the focus of a joint research project being carried out by the University at Albany School of Criminal Justice (SCJ) and the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS). SCJ Associate Professor Alissa Pollitz Worden and ILS Director of Research Andy Davies are leading the project.

“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,” said Davies. “That means you can be sent straight to jail without ever getting to talk to a lawyer about bail. 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 research grant, is focusing on six upstate New York counties. Part of an ongoing research partnership between SCJ and ILS, the project is designed to assess the impact of $12 million in funding from ILS to improve counsel at defendants’ first court appearances.

“Upstate New York is the perfect place for this project,” said Worden. “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 in these areas, so that is what makes this study so valuable.

“Public defense providers in the six very different counties devised their own programs, taking into account their particular geographic, economic and political realities. The local defenders and court officials are leading their initiatives, and we’re going to figure out how they work out in improving legal counsel for the poor.”