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New York ACLU Report Says Justice Isn’t for the Poor

New York, NY- We are always taught that in America everyone, no matter their race, gender or socio-economic status, has a fair shake in our criminal justice system. Lady Justice is supposed to be blind to our rave or our yearly income. That’s what we would all like to believe, but the reality is that isn’t always the case, and money can often dictate whether a person actually gets justice.


In a report, released last Wednesday, the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that criminal offenders in the state are denied to access to a proper criminal defense because of the state’s underfunded public defender system. The most searing conclusion from the report is that justice was “only available to those who can afford it.”

After investigating five districts in New York– Onondaga, where Syracuse is located, Suffolk, Ontario, Schuyler and Washington– the ACLU found that the state’s criminal justice system fails to work for the state’s indigent population, in spite of their constitutional rights and the rights afforded to them by the state.

The report indicated that poor defenders were regularly arraigned without legal counsel, public defenders did not consult with expert witnesses, and some counties set ridiculously low income levels, preventing people near or below the poverty line from qualifying for a public defender.

In Onondaga County, one-third of the 10,000 criminal defendants in the county never met with their public defender until their court date, which the report states typically results in the defendants pleading guilty.

Since the majority of criminal cases are handled through pre-trial negotiations, the accused is at a significant disadvantage if the first time they speak with their attorney is their arraignment.

While public defenders are well-educated and very competent, their caseload makes it very difficult for them to give each case the individual attention necessary, something the ACLU report. They didn’t place the blame on the public defenders, stating that underfunding is the main culprit behind the disparity in the state’s justice system.

The report noted that in Washington County, for instance, prosecutors are granted 35 times more in funds to build their case than public defenders were given for their client’s criminal defense. The counties seven public defenders were forced to share one computer among them, according to the report.

Without counsel in the critical first stages of their case, the poor defendants often spend months in jail before they go to trial or reach a plea bargain. This costs them their jobs and their homes, the report noted.

NYACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and issued a number of recommendations to improve the system. New York allows each county to delegate public defense funds and duties, which the ACLU recommends they change. They also recommend each county reduce each public defender’s case load and give them the opportunity to meet their clients before their arraignment.

The findings of this study should be shocking and it’s in all likelihood, the budgetary constraints are not limited to New York State. An aggressive and successful defense takes time to craft; an attorney needs to have access to experts and meet with their clients regularly. When you retain and criminal defense attorney you know your case will get the attention it deserves. They have access to expert witnesses and can devote their individual attention to your case.