This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright in which the Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that defendants in criminal cases deserved legal representation in state courts. If defendants could not afford counsel, the state would have to provide it. Those lawyers are known as public defenders.
Citizens gathered at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany for a community meeting and screening of the award-winning HBO documentary "Gideon's Army," that follows three defenders of the poor in the deep South. The takeaway: many Americans living in poverty routinely plead guilty to crimes because they lack financial resources to fight the system. The scenario plays out nationwide.
Kirsten Morgan is a doctoral student in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany and organized the movie screening. "I figured that showing it here would not only give people a chance to see an amazing documentary, but hopefully build discussion in our communities in New York State where we do have a lot of underfunded public defense offices and we do have a lot of problems where we're not providing the defense services we need to."
Jonathan Gradess is Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association, a not-for-profit, membership organization dedicated to improving the quality and scope of public legal representation in New York. The Association operates the nation's only state-funded Public Defense Backup Center, serving New York's more than 5,000 public defense attorneys. Gradess says New York's legal system is in dire straits.
"New York is at a critical moment in it's history. It's kind of a perfect storm of events. The state has been on a downward slide for many years. It's currently being sued by plaintiffs throughout the state against five counties, but also against the state, represented by the Civil Liberties Union. That lawsuit is heading toward trial. We're trying actually to convince the governor to settle that lawsuit and to take the occasion to build a new state public defense system, which was called for by the former chief judge, Judge Kaye, seven years ago. In 2006, she had a commission report that said the state system was unconstitutional, that the delivery mechanism was defective. The state had to step up to the plate and take responsibility to administer it, and that it needed to be state funded."
Director Dawn Porter told NPR that by focusing on public defenders and the relationships with their clients, she hoped her audience would see the criminal justice system from the perspective of the accused. Kerry Losert, a student who attended the screening, formed her own opinion. "I think the legal system should be streamlined into better deciding whether or not a person is guilty or not guilty. And that way, it wouldn't matter if the lawyers were good for the poor and for the rich."
Gradess says New York has an office of indigent legal services that is underfunded. "...the governor needs to engage with it. He needs to build that or build into a new system of state funding and that's where we are. Thirty other states are already there. The difference could be that if we do it, and we do it at this instance, we could probably make it the best system in the country."
I asked Gradess if he has communicated this to the governor - he said he has written Cuomo: "..a guy like Andrew Cuomo could unwind the gordian knot of Gideon and prove to the nation that there is a way to do this, to do it cost-effectively, to deliver quality and to do it in a way that is fair to poor people who have been lost in the belly of the beast in New York for fifty years."
Governor Cuomo's office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Here's a link to Gideon's Promise - the organization that trains, mentors and supports the young lawyers featured in the film Gideon's Army. www.gideonspromise.org.