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Biting the bullet

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A program ensuring criminal defendants have access to lawyers when they are arraigned has yet to be implemented in St. Lawrence County due to unresolved issues.

St. Lawrence was one of 25 counties last year to receive a portion of $12 million in funding for a pilot program designed to provide legal representation to defendants at arraignment. St. Lawrence’s share comes out to $587,000 over three years.

The program is slated to begin May 15, a startup that has already been delayed twice. But officials still have questions about the program and how the county will carry it out.

A big issue is what will happen once the seed money runs out after three years. St. Lawrence would be required to start funding the program on its own, and this would require juggling items in the budget to make money available.

“The program is the outgrowth of a recent Court of Appeals decision in Hurrell-Harring v. New York, which recognizes that having counsel is vital at arraignment,” according to a story Wednesday in the Watertown Daily Times. “Even if guilty pleas are not made at a defendant’s first judicial appearance, the court determined that other key interests exist, including the loss of employment and housing, and the inability to support and care for dependents.”

“Representatives of the county Magistrates Association will meet May 12 with County Court Judge Jerome J. Richards and Public Defender Stephen D. Button — who wrote the grant application — to address concerns posed by local judges, Fowler Justice Paul M. Lamson said,” the story reported. “Among the questions are whether the program only applies to indigent defendants, how long the courts have to wait for a defense attorney to appear, how much attorneys will be paid and how the attorneys will be called in.”

There is a compelling rationale for implementing such a program as criminal defendants should never be denied their constitutional right to legal counsel. Ensuring that lawyers are available to defendants whenever they are arraigned is an obligation that St. Lawrence County cannot ignore.

But this will conflict with a competing interest: keeping county expenses at a minimum. It appears that the county will have to start funding this program once the three-year pilot revenue has dried up. It’s essential for officials to tackle the unanswered questions and get this program up and running according to the May 15 schedule.

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