In 2007, Kimberly Hurrell-Harring of Washington County was a registered nurse with no prior criminal record, working a full-time job and a part-time job so she could take care of her two young daughters and her mother, who had suffered a stroke. Her husband was in jail.
When she was caught bringing a small amount of marijuana (3/4 ounce) to him in jail, she was charged with a felony that could have brought her seven years in prison and $5,000 in fines.
No attorney represented her at her arraignment, and she couldn’t meet the $10,000 bail/$20,000 bond, so she was sent to jail.
Her attorney, when she did meet with him, took no interest in the case. She lingered in jail for several weeks, finally agreeing to plead guilty. But her lawyer didn’t inform her of the consequences of her plea. So instead of being sentenced to probation, as she anticipated, she received six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The felony conviction also meant the state could withdraw her nursing license, depriving her of her ability to provide for her family.
All this happened because she didn’t have adequate legal representation.
The measure of a society is how well it treats its weakest members. Here in New York, we have fallen short when it comes to poor people charged with crimes.
Many New York residents like Kimberly Hurrell-Harring sit in jail for months at a time awaiting trial, or they sit in prison for crimes they didn't commit — all because they weren't provided with the basic American right of a proper legal defense.
The right was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the famous Gideon v. Wainwright case (Rent "Gideon's Trumpet" with Henry Fonda for a dramatic interpretation.)
The court left the responsibility with the states. But New York's lawmakers, as they have a bad habit of doing, passed the responsibility down to the county governments, which led to a patchwork of representation that has not always served the poor well.
In some cases, often-underpaid public defenders have been assigned overwhelming caseloads, making it impossible for them to devote the necessary time and attention to represent the poor.
The result has been a multi-tiered system of justice, whereby representation is determined by one's socioeconomic status and where one happens to live.
In effect, New York has abdicated the responsibility bestowed on it by the federal government by not ensuring fair and equal representation statewide.
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a chance to right that wrong and demonstrate the strength of our society by signing a bill (A.10706/S.8114) that would even the playing field. The bill requires the state government to reimburse counties and cities, over a seven-year period, the costs of providing indigent criminal defense services.
The state would take over full funding of the program in 2023, placing the financial responsibility back where it was originally intended and relieving local governments of yet another unwarranted state mandate.
The bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature in June, is cosponsored locally by Sen. George Amedore and Assembly members Phil Steck and Carrie Woerner. It was delivered to the governor's desk on Tuesday.
We urge him to sign the bill and right this terrible wrong.