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Public Defender caseload trending down, funding for 24-hour arraignment coverage uncertain

By: Bennett Loudon//March 14, 2016

Public Defender caseload trending down, funding for 24-hour arraignment coverage uncertain

By: Bennett Loudon//March 14, 2016

The most significant news in the Monroe County Public Defender’s 2015 annual report is the implementation of a program to provide around-the-clock representation to indigent clients in all courts.

But it’s unclear whether the new New York state budget, due to be approved by April 1, will continue the funding needed to continue what is called the Counsel at First Appearance (CAFA) Program, said Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher.

The state Office of Indigent Legal Services, which provided the grant funding for lawyers from Donaher’s office to be available at all hours, is waiting to find out what overall funding will be included for their agency in the new budget.

“I’m certainly hopeful that we’ll maintain that level of funding, and it’s certainly vital that we receive that level of funding if we’re going to continue with the program as is,” Donaher said.

A loss of the funding would force Donaher to “re-evaluate the staffing levels that we’ve dedicated to that program.”

“If the funding were to totally disappear, and we were to stop providing that service, the impact on the justice system in the towns and villages would be significant,” he said.

As a result of the around-the-clock representation, Donaher said, judges are setting lower bail amounts, charges are being dismissed, and orders of protection are being vacated or not issued because of problems with accusatory documents.

“There are all sorts of benefits that are being afforded criminal defendants when they have an attorney at arraignment, and obviously when we are able to keep a person out of custody as a result of the fact that there’s an attorney there at arraignment, the benefits go beyond the benefit to the defendant,” Donaher said.

When a defendant remains free they can continue working and won’t seek public assistance. Their families benefit from the defendant staying at home, Donaher said.

To fund CAFA, Donaher’s office received a $724,218 three-year grant in 2013. In February 2014, the first-phase of the program was implemented with two staff attorneys on call to attend local court arraignments from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week. Staff attorneys also started attended every town and village’s court arraignment docket. There are 49 town and village courts in Monroe County.

On June 1, 2015, the Public Defender’s Office expanded the program to cover arraignments around the clock, seven days a week, which required at least one staffer to be on call at all times.

Monroe County is the first large county outside New York City to provide counsel at first appearance for all indigent defendants arraigned in a local court, according to the report.

The annual report also revealed that a downward trend in total cases handled by the Monroe County Public Defender is continuing.

Last year, the office officially had 27,989 new clients. But many of those were handed off to the Monroe County Conflict Defender or private attorneys, so the Public Defender wound up handling only about 22,500 cases, Donaher said.

The number of cases has gradually dropped since reaching a high of 30,156 in 2011, largely due to zero-tolerance policing policies that have since been adjusted.

Most of the reduction in caseload is due to a drop in misdemeanors and violations handled by the Public Defender. The office handled 12,864 misdemeanors in 2011. Last year the number was down to 11,817. Likewise, the number of violations handled by the Public Defender went from 4,987 in 2011 to 3,567 last year.

“The bulk of the decrease in the caseloads are in the misdemeanor violations. The felony numbers are largely the same,” Donaher said.

The felony caseload for the Public Defender was 2,544 in 2011, compared to 2,471 in 2015.

The 29-page annual report also includes statistics detailing the Public Defender’s work during the year:

• 35 homicides

• 228 appeals

• 1,919 pleas as charged

• 886 felony pleas to lesser charges (136 to lesser felonies, 750 to misdemeanors)

• 124 trials (29 guilty as charged, 22 guilty of lesser charge, 48 not guilty and three mistrials)

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