Criminal defense attorneys created NYSDA in 1967 to confront collectively the challenge of implementing landmark constitutional right-to-counsel decisions beginning with Gideon v Wainwright. In 1965, New York State had statutorily delegated to localities the responsibility for providing public defense. That law, County Law article 18-B, presented both opportunities and barriers. In 1981, NYSDA’s Public Defense Backup Center– a national first – obtained state funding to underwrite its work. Its services assisted lawyers, programs, and counties working to provide the representation required by the law, and by justice. Our Work today, and the Resources and Training NYSDA provides, build on that beginning.
From the start, public defense services faced crises upon crises. In criminal courts and in Family Court, lawyers struggled and clients suffered. At the same time, Herculean efforts at the state and local levels continued, achieving much but never enough. In its 30th year, NYSDA produced a final, anniversary edition of its magazine, The Defender, that recounted the first three decades of NYSDA’S work, the challenges it had overcome, and those that it still faced.
In the ensuing years, the services provided by the Backup Center continued to grow. Legal changes, including increasingly severe immigration consequences of criminal convictions, new mandatory minimum sentences, and harsh civil regulations imposed on sex offenders, required intense training and support for lawyers in criminal practice. NYSDA stepped in. Economic misfortunes threatened local providers and counties alike, increasing the need for technical assistance like the Public Defense Case Management System. NYSDA stepped in, even when facing its own fiscal difficulties.
At the same time, NYSDA also continued its contractual obligations to "review, assess and analyze the public defense system" and to make specific recommendations to government entities and others. The Backup Center produced Reports and Studies on public defense in specific localities and on statewide issues, proposing changes to fix identified problems. Eventually, NYSDA’s ongoing examination of Public Defense Issues coalesced into a call to create an independent, statewide, fully state-funded public defense system. The 40th Annual Report to NYSDA’s membership describes the first four decades of ongoing Backup Center services and collaborative efforts for needed statewide change.
Those collaborative efforts have taken many forms. For example, “Gideon Day” observances on the March 18th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright changed focus over time from specific budgetary needs within the framework of article 18-B to the need for full systemic reform. NYSDA has collaborated with many others in addressing Public Defense Issues, urging the State to accept its responsibility to provide quality mandated representation.
As NYSDA approaches its 50th year, it looks back with pride on its Accomplishments and advocacy efforts. It looks with appreciation at the current work of its Board of Directors, Client Advisory Board, and Staff. And it looks ahead with confidence that, with its many allies, its will ensure justice for all.