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A Win for Systemic Reform to Improve Indigent Defense

The Hurrell-Harring case builds on state and local reforms designed to create a more fair and rational justice system.

Legal services advocates won a significant victory for a defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The triumph came in the settlement of Hurrell-Haring v. State of New York, a long-running challenge to the funding for legal services in five upstate counties.

In 1963, the Supreme Court declared in Gideon v. Wainwright that all criminal defendants facing felony convictions shall have the right to a lawyer, regardless of ability to pay. Fifty years later, that guarantee has been hollowed by severe budget cuts and overburdened public defenders unable to provide adequate representation.

The Hurrell-Harring case illustrates the problem. Plaintiffs initiated the litigation in 2007, arguing that the counties provided inadequate representation to the indigent. The inadequacy stemmed from New York state’s failure to provide appropriate funding, resources and oversight to its public defense system.

The October 21st settlement will remedy these systemic flaws through broad reforms. Among others, the provisions ensure counsel at a defendant’s first appearance in court, provide caseload relief for attorneys providing indigent representation, improve the quality of representation through various measures, and improve eligibility determinations to ensure those who need publicly-provided representation will receive it.

Hurrell-Harring is significant for two additional reasons. First, it proves another win for advocates seeking to enforce the Gideon mandate through class-action litigation. Just last December, a federal court in Washington State found two counties violated individuals’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and required reforms to county public defense systems. Along with Hurrell-Harring, these cases open the door to litigation as a method to ensure all criminal defendants receive meaningful and effective assistance of counsel.

Second, the New York case settled shortly after the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest. Attorney General Holder’s commitment to improving the criminal justice system at various points – from prosecutorial decisions to sentencing to indigent defense – is a defining aspect of his tenure. His dedication to raising awareness about the system’s flaws opens the discourse on criminal justice reform nationwide. Settlement of this case can be considered another victory for his initiatives.

The Hurrell-Harring case builds on state and local reforms designed to create a more fair and rational justice system. Hopefully, it will spur other localities to improve their public defense systems to increase access to representation and avoid litigation.

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