Counties Detail State Budget Priorities for Indigent Defense Services

March 21, 2017
The New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) has asked State Legislators to revise the Governor's budget proposal on public defense to include a partial state takeover of the state-mandated program.
The Governor's Budget released in January provides state funding for new expansions to public defense services, but does not provide for any relief from the $370 million that county property taxpayers annually provide for the services, which are the constitutional responsibility of state government. 
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court held in the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that all criminal defendants had the right to be represented by counsel, regardless of their ability to afford an attorney.  This federal constitutional mandate was then charged to all States to carry out and finance. New York State has in turn passed the responsibility of providing all indigent defense services, and most of the costs of this service, to counties and local property taxpayers.
In June of 2016, the Senate and Assembly unanimously passed legislation S.8114 Senator John DeFrancisco/A.10706 Assembly Member Patricia Fahy) that would have reduced disparities in our criminal justice system and eliminated an expensive unfunded mandate on counties. The Governor vetoed the bill on December 31, 2016, citing concerns that the takeover was not part of the state's financial plan, and that he didn't want to shift these costs to state taxpayers.
"The real cost shift took place 50 years ago, and property taxpayers have been paying for this state program ever since.  Our county leaders and State Lawmakers have been working for years on a sensible legislation that would relieve property taxpayers from this state burden. Now is the time to enact that language in the State's spending plan," said NYSAC President William E. Cherry, the Schoharie County Treasurer.
The Governor's budget proposal expands a recent state settlement, alleging unconstitutional public defense, to all areas of the state, not just the areas represented in the lawsuit.  The Governor's budget requires the expansion of service to include public defender case cap loads as well as off-hour arraignment coverage.  Unfortunately, under this plan, the counties, not the State, must front the expanded indigent defense service costs. The State would then reimburse the costs they deem necessary for the state imposed expansion of services.
The Assembly's one house budget proposal agrees with the Governor's proposed expansion, and includes language for a future fiscal state takeover of county criminal indignant defense service costs. This fiscal takeover would be over 7 years and start in 2018. The Senate's one house budget concurs with the Governor's proposal and provides no additional mandate relief for current county costs.
"I believe we have made the case. That our public system of defense in New York can  be vastly improved.  We have bi-partisan and strong support within the Legislature to implement the necessary reform, and I encourage our Senators and Assembly Members to support these reforms.  These costs have always been the state's responsibility, but they shifted those to property taxpayers. Now we have an opportunity to both strengthen public defense and lower the property taxes allocated to these services," said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, who has been a tireless champion of the indigent legal defense reform legislation.

The New York State Association of Counties is a bipartisan municipal association serving all 62 counties of New York State including the City of New York. Organized in 1925, NYSAC's mission is to represent, educate and advocate for member counties and the thousands of elected and appointed county officials who serve the public. For more information, visit