Oswego weighs starting public defender office

OSWEGO COUNTY — The issue of having a public defender’s office in Oswego County has come up again.

At last week’s Legislature Public Safety Committee meeting, Sara Davis, the county’s assigned counsel program administrator, gave a report on the county’s efforts toward a Centralized Arraignment Plan.

In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new law allowing centralized off-hour arraignments for local criminal courts outside of New York City. The plan would set up a place for arraignments during off hours and a list of lawyers who can get to the arraignments to represent those arrested.

Davis said the biggest problem is coming up with a list of lawyers available to be on call at all times in the event of an arraignment at any time, including the middle of the night. She said she has talked to numerous state officials and they have told her to get young lawyers involved.

“We don’t have many young lawyers (doing criminal work) in Oswego County,” she told the committee. She said she is one of the youngest in the county and she’s in her 50s.

Because of this lack of criminal lawyers, Davis told county officials this might be the right time to think about starting a public defender’s office.

Through the assigned counsel program now run by the county, lawyers from the private sector are assigned to represent a client who can’t afford a lawyer. With a public defender’s office, the county employs lawyers who handle the cases.

With a public defender’s office, there would be county-employed lawyers at the ready to represent people in criminal arraignments at all hours of the day and night.

Oswego County legislators last kicked this idea around in earnest back in 2013 when the county’s assigned counsel office began being too costly.

In 2008, the assigned counsel costs were $1,017,519. It jumped 71 percent to $1,739,648 in 2012.

The 2019 county budget includes $3,468,269 for the assigned counsel program, with $1,986,356 coming from state aid.

In 2013, it was estimated the county could save $1 million a year by switching to a public defender’s office. Oswego County has grappled with cost overruns in the assigned counsel’s office for numerous years in the past — especially from 2009 through 2013.

Oswego County is one of only a few counties in the state without a public defender’s office. Of the 62 counties, about 44 have public defender’s offices. Most of the rest have assigned counsel offices like Oswego County, while others, such as Putnam and Orange, contract with the local Legal Aid Society for indigent representation.

Legislator Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, chair of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said the biggest part of the centralized arraignment plan is ensuring lawyers are available for defendants during their first court appearance. If lawyers are difficult to find, looking at establishing a public defender’s office might be wise, he said.

“It is something to keep in mind moving forward,” Mr. Wilbur said.

County Administrator Philip Church said he would like to know if the legislature is serious about establishing a public defender’s office because doing so might affect the design of a court expansion.

The county recently was told it had to come up with a plan to address its inadequate facilities for family and county court.

“With the Public Safety Center expansion for the courts, I would like to know (if a public defender’s office is desired) to work it into the plan,” Church said. “There is nowhere to put them right now.”

Wilbur said there probably isn’t time to consider a public defender’s office in the court expansion plan at the Public Safety Center on Churchill Road in Oswego. And the county most likely can’t get a public defender’s office up and running for 2020 because the 2020 county budget is being worked on right now and a study hasn’t been done to see what a public defender’s office would cost.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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