Steuben County Calling on State to Step In to Aid Indigent Funding

BATH, N.Y. -- More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Gideon v Wainwright that it was the state's responsibility to pay for a public defender if the client couldn't afford it.

But as time passed, that responsibility has been passed on to counties -- and ultimately taxpayers.

"We need all the help we can get," said Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler. "They used to pick up a larger share. Now they pick up less than 20 percent of our cost for all public defense."

Steuben County is one of many across the state asking lawmakers in Albany to pick up the cost they can no longer afford.

"Long story short: There are a number of new requirements coming down from the state to enhance the level of public defender service that we provide," said Wheeler. "But that costs money, money that we don’t have. So the state needs to pick up those bills."

He says the county already spends $2.2 million per year on public defense alone, and that new requirements coming down from the state just aren't feasible.

"If the state doesn’t step up and fund the enhanced level of service they are requiring for public defense, it would be about a half-million dollars for Steuben County residents next year, which would be untenable," said Wheeler. "We wouldn’t be able to support that. It would result in a tax increase which we don’t want to do."

To avoid burdening taxpayers, county lawmakers are supporting a bill that pushes the state to fund legal representation. The Cost Indigent Defense Take Over Bill is now in the state assembly, but it's not the first time.

Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a similar bill last year.

"We hope he steps up and sees the light," said Wheeler. "The level of government that makes the rules and sets the requirements should have to pay for the services, and that’s all we’re asking for. It’s pretty simple."

Wheeler remains hopeful the bill will be signed by the end of session.

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