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Supporters of legal services for poor find novel way to gain attention

Karen DeWitt

With lawmakers in Albany preoccupied with getting the budget done by week’s end, groups have to get creative to gain attention. Supporters of spending for public defense for the poor came up with one way: a “Wheel of Fortune”-style game staged right in the middle of the action.

The New York Civil Liberties Union chose a busy corridor in the Capitol between lawmakers’ offices and the Senate and Assembly chambers to hold a contest featuring a brightly colored wheel styled after the one on the iconic television show.

But the disc is called the “Wheel of Justice,” and instead of prizes, it stops on placards labeled “homeless,” “ruined” and “death.”

“On every placard is a story about an actual case in New York, where the public defense system failed a person’s right to counsel,” said Bob Perry, the group’s legislative director.

In 2014, the Cuomo administration settled a lawsuit, known as Hurrell-Harring v. New York, with five counties in the state. A judge ruled that poor people accused of crimes were not getting their constitutionally guaranteed right to legal defense, as determined under the U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright.

The state agreed to fund the five counties’ costs for defense of the indigent. But the rest of the counties in the state still have to finance the public defense services at an estimated cost of $400 million a year.

The Legislature approved a bill to eventually fund the counties’ costs by 2023, but it was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on New Year’s Eve. The governor said it would cost too much, and he wanted to work out a new solution in 2017.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, took a turn spinning the wheel on Wednesday, and it landed on a placard labeled “Beaten Up.” It tells the tale of an Onondaga County man who the card said was “brutally” beaten by the police and wrongfully charged with possessing a weapon. Because of a mistake in his defense case, the man pleaded guilty even though he is innocent, and ended up in prison for eight years.

Fahy is hopeful, though, that more money for legal services for the poor will be part of the new state budget.

“I feel pretty good about it,” she said.

She said the remaining fight is over how much control Cuomo’s budget department has in handing out the funds, and whether the total cost for counties’ legal defense services would be financed by the state — or only a portion.

On Tuesday, the governor warned that “dramatic” budget spending increases are unaffordable, given threats of federal funding cuts in Washington, but he said he’d be willing to agree to “modest” increases.

“I guess everybody has a different definition of modest,” Fahy said.

Fahy has a couple more days to find out whether her version of the bill funding legal defense services is a winner or not.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.