$300,000 granted to St. Lawrence County to help manage public defender’s caseload
Monday, March 17, 2014 - 5:39 pm

St. Lawrence County has been awarded a grant of $299,408 to help the county’s Office of the Public Defender (OPD) better manage its increasing caseload.

County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire said that this grant will go a long way to help clear the backlog of cases being handled by the OPD.

“Indigent defense is a Constitutional mandate, but the burden falls on county government,” St. Hilaire said. “We are pleased that people at the state level recognize the challenge we face in meeting this mandate and have made these funds available.”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainright from 1965 places the burden on the state of providing legal counsel for people who can’t afford a lawyer. In turn, New York delegated that responsibility to the counties. St. Lawrence County has recently called upon the State of New York to assume complete responsibility for indigent defense.

In 2012, the Public Defender’s Office handled 2,718 cases. In 2013, that figure jumped to 3,165. Early indications are that the 2014 level may be even higher. Public Defender Stephen D. Button, who wrote the grant application in July 2013, had a simple explanation for the increase: “St. Lawrence County was hit hard by the 2008 recession and it has taken us longer to recover than other counties. When people are financially distressed, they tend to rely on our services to a greater extent.”

The grant is to be spread out over three years.

The will be seeking permission from county legislators to hire a seventh attorney with the additional funds.

William J. Leahy, director of the Office of Indigent Legal Services, praised the work of the Chief Defender Advisory Group, which developed the plan to provide distressed counties with relief.

Button has been a member of the 15-member organization since 2013.

“We will continue to monitor this situation and seek relief for impacted Counties if the problem persists,” Button said.

St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators Chairman Jonathan Putney said that St. Lawrence County is always looking for creative ways to fund its activities so that the local taxpayers are not overburdened. “If there are grants out there that can help us meet our mission, we’re going to go after them, “Putney said. “The right to a speedy trial is a well-established part of our American system but the state and federal governments rely on the county to fulfill this mandate. Our Public Defender’s Office staff does a great job fulfilling numerous legal requirements while handling a wide range of cases."

This is the second competitive grant provided to St. Lawrence County by the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services in the past year. In August 2013, the county was awarded approximately $587,000.00 to implement a program for providing counsel at first appearance. In a 2010 decision, the New York State Court of Appeals determined that defendants who are not provided counsel when they first appear before a judge on charges are in jeopardy of being denied their right to effective assistance of counsel. Button said that the new grant will also be used to assist in implementing the Counsel at First Appearance Program.

According to Button, “The Counsel at First Appearance Grant, The Upstate Quality Improvement Grant and the efforts at development of the Rural Appellate Center are just some of the steps that we have taken to provide quality representation to the citizens of this county while reducing the financial strain shared by our taxpayers.”