Onondaga County addresses flaws in their criminal justice system after $2 million settlement

After a $2 million settlement was awarded to five New York counties, Onondaga County still struggles to meet demands of the criminal justice system.

The violation of the constitution has come at a price for New York state. In 2007 a lawsuit, Hurrell-Harring v. New York, was brought against five New York counties: Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington.

The lawsuit sought to ensure that a lawyer represents every poor criminal defendant at their initial court appearance and that lawyers are adequately prepared to contest the charges being brought, to reduce the caseloads of public defense attorneys and to ensure criminal defendants received proper defense.

In the United States the bigger problem is mass criminalization.
Patricia Warth

The suit came after several incidents that occurred that violated sixth amendment: the right to an attorney and a fair trial. For years, Onondaga specifically had been unable to provide adequate defense for those who depended on assigned counsel.

According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, Jacqueline Winbrone was held in Onondaga County on $10,000 bail for criminal possession of a weapon in 2007. The gun had been planted in her car by her husband, who was mentally ill. She tried to get in contact with her attorney for five days before she got any response. Winbrone’s husband died during the 50 days she was in custody awaiting trial. Her lawyer did not notify her when the case was ultimately dismissed.

Winbrone’s case remains one of thousands in New York that failed to provide swift and adequate defense. Winbrone is part of a system, according to Patricia Warth, the chief implementation attorney of Hurrell-Harring.

“Our criminal justice system is buckling under the weight of the number of people we process through that system,” said Warth. “And I don’t use the word ‘process’ lightly, because that’s what we do. We don’t treat people in our system as human beings, we treat them as cogs in the wheel.”

According to the NYCLU, it was commonplace for defendants to meet their attorneys for the first time just minutes before their arraignment, which Warth states is a “serious and significant part of the proceeding that shouldn’t be rushed.” There were times when attorneys would be arraigned without any lawyer present, or be held in jail without meeting an attorney for weeks.

But Warth argues that the bigger issue in the United States is not so much mass incarceration – being that our criminal justice system accounts for 25 percent of those incarcerated– but rather mass criminalization. The amount of people arrested and detained for minor or non-violent charges weighs too heavily on the ACP, which lacks in funding.

Syracuse currently ranks 29th on the poorest cities in America, and more often than not, residents who are arrested cannot afford a private defender. Currently, about 95 percent of all criminal cases are given to the ACP. Yet, their investigative budget is 35 times less than that of the district attorney’s office. Along with working through large volumes of cases, the ACP lawyers do not get a salaried pay. According to defense lawyer Jason Zeigler, who serves on the ACP, Hurrell-Harring has yet to fully resolve the issues plaguing the system.

“When I take a case, I get somewhere between six months to two years to get a check. On top of that I’m getting a subpar rate,” said Zeigler.  “They’re starving people out, and you’re expecting them to do all of this so they can pay their rent. And that’s the problem, they never address the fact that we can’t get paid. They could at least start following the law.”

Lawyers on the ACP cannot get paid until a trial is over, which is why some lawyers will ask their clients to take a plea deal, even if the client maintains his innocence. If a case is resolved more quickly, a lawyer can get paid sooner. A disservice to both attorneys and the defendants.

Private defense lawyer Irene Flores, who participates on the ACP panel and has been working in criminal court since 2004, notes that the majority of  those who depend on assigned counsel, and the majority of those who face criminal charges, are black.

“It’s probably most of the African American defendants in this county that are facing county court charges in Onondaga,” said Flores. “I don’t know what that percentage is. But if you sit in a county courtroom from morning till lunch time, you will see that a bulk of the defendants being brought from the holding area or the jail are African American.”

Currently, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that the wealth of white households was 13 times that than the median wealth of black households. On a national level, black people in American face both legal and financial inequality.

“The US legal system is harsh and unidirectional as it punishes the poor, the black, the black and other disproportionately,” said Kwame Dixon, professor of African-American studies and political science at Syracuse University. “I think the more appropriate way to frame this is the administration of justice which includes, laws, policing, jails, prison, parole and the court system. This system was created to police slaves, indentured servants and poor whites. Little has changed. Legal counsel for the poor while available simple does not allow the poor, indigent and lower middle class people a fair trial.”

The settlement will allocate over $500,000 to Onondaga county over the next two years, and about $400,000 will go to the ACP in order to address the issues both attorneys and defendants have complained about.

“The money for the ACP is hoping to help implement more time spent with clients, filing motions where appropriate, arguing motions when appropriate, doing investigations, working with interpreters and social workers. Up until now the amount of time spent on cases was really bad. Very disappointing and not enough to do a quality job.” Warth said.

Zeigler says that the professional workload, along with the financial stress is why the blame should not be put on defense attorneys. While the settlement officially went into effect last fall, Zeigler claims that there is still issues that have yet to be addressed by Hurrell-Harring.

“The people are on the panel that do a whole bunch of work, we’re not being told much of anything. There’s all this talk about Hurrell-Harring doing great stuff, and they’re still haven’t implemented as much change on the county level,” Zeigler said. “The county was always bullsh***ing everybody. It was always hard to get anyone to listen or talk to us. That started to change, but as far as where the money is going, we still have problems where they’re still not rotating the attorneys like we’re supposed to. So far the training has been good, but those attorneys are still under the same pressures, it’s not necessarily that people don’t know how to do their jobs, it’s that it’s the retaliation that people went through in trying to do their job.”

Zeigler was also frustrated with way in which defense attorneys were being blamed for the legal issues in Onondaga. The bigger issue is the amount of money the state is willing to shovel into prosecution rather than defense, and the mass rate at which the state would arrest and charge citizens that results in an unmanageable system.

 “This can’t change until we take a deep look at our criminal justice system, and decide and go ‘Wow, what is going on? Why did we arrest so many people? Why are the cops doing that? Are there any unintentional consequences that we haven’t thought through?'" Warth said. "There are."

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