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Gamble for Your Life? NYCLU Sues for Right to an Attorney

First Posted: Aug 28, 2014 12:54 PM EDT
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The New York Civil Liberties Union kicked off its 'Wheel of Justice NY' campaign on Wednesday at Washington Square Park to highlight the state's broken public defense system. In the United States, an accused person has the right to an attorney, and the state provides one if the person cannot afford one.

"As New Yorkers we don't expect to be grouped with Arizona, Texas and Alabama, but our justice system has been compared to theirs because for decades the state has not been properly funding the system," said Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney at NYCLU.

The campaign device, a Wheel of Justice, is a wheel of fortune which shows how justice in the state can be a gamble. All the games outcomes -- Homeless, Ignored, Go to Jail, $$$ -- are true stories. The fortune outcome that reads Ruined says "You only commit a misdemeanor. Your public defense attorney advises you to plead guilty to a felony. You go to jail and lose your job and home. Your lawyer, who has a history of neglecting cases, is disbarred." The Ruined fortune is the true story of Kimberly H. from Washington County, New York. The game can also be played online. The campaign will make stops in Albany, Long Island, Syracuse and at Yankee Stadium.

One of the crowd's onlookers said it should be called the "Wheel of Injustice."

"This is about the state's failure to give lawyers the resources they need. Lawyers are carrying hundreds and hundreds of cases at a time. They don't have the time to go out to court appearances. They don't have the time to investigate charges," said Stoughton. "For decades now, since 1965, the public defense system has been broken, and the state hasn't been able to do anything about it. The criminal justice system relies on there being a level playing field -- the prosecutor accuses someone of a crime, after that a person gets a fair shake of defending themselves, and that all depends on having a lawyer that has the time and resources to put up a defense."

Stoughton said there are a range of outcomes for people caught up in the criminal justice system. Some people languish in jail for months and they are innocent. Some people go to jail for years, when they probably did make a mistake but should have only been incarcerated for months. Some people should have been out waiting their charges and in the meantime lose their house and their job. The consequences, she said, all boil down to the same problem: there aren't enough resources.

"It is lack of state funds and state commitment. At first you think there are no politics behind lawyers and poor people accused of crime, but at bottom the costs of the system are being borne by taxpayers, because you have people in jail who shouldn't be, and that costs us hundreds of dollars every day. They are in prison for too long, and when they come back into society and can't get a job, they become a drain on the economy," said Stoughton.

NYCLU filed a lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. New York, seven years ago asking the court to declare New York's public defense system unconstitutional.

"Our trial shouldn't be necessary," said Donne Liberman, executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union. "Governor Cuomo has demonstrated he can be a progressive leader. The time is now for him to ensure that all New Yorkers get the representation they deserve."

The case was filed in Albany Supreme Court, and goes to trial Oct. 3.

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