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Demonstrators Demand Dollars For Legal Services For NY's Poorest

Eight protesters were arrested outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office Tuesday, as they demonstrated for more money for legal aid services for New York's poorest.

Protesters chanted “What do we want? Lawyers," and blockaded an entrance to Governor Cuomo’s suite of offices at the Capitol.

After years of what critics say was under-funding legal aid for New York’s lowest income people, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill in 2016 to create a state funded system to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive legal representation, as is their right under the U.S. Constitution.

Currently, most  individual counties pay the costs of legal defense. Governor Cuomo held the legislation until New Year’s Eve, then vetoed it, saying it would be an $800 million cost shift to state taxpayers and that reform is needed first to bring the price down. Cuomo has proposed a new plan in his budget that he says will offer more accountability.

Terrell Jones, with VOCAL New York,  says he’s tired of waiting, and accused Cuomo of favoring the wealthy over the poor.

“Mr. Cuomo is the governor for the rich,” Jones said. “And we the poor people can’t even get a lawyer to defend us in jail.”

Demonstrators blocked the entrance to the governor’s offices, and eight were arrested.

Cuomo was in Albany but did not comment. His spokesman, Rich Azzopardi, says the protesters’ accusations are off base, and he calls the demonstration “performance art” that disregards the “facts”.  

“Expanding this administration's landmark commitment to indigent legal services statewide is in the budget, as is extending the millionaires tax,” Azzopoardi said. “ Also, no governor has closed more New York prisons than this one.”

Cuomo, in his budget has proposed extending a temporary income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires later this year.

Five upstate counties already receive full funding for legal services from the state, the result of a lawsuit that state officials settled with the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2014.

Vocal New York’s Jeremy Saunders says his group is not unfairly critical of the governor, and they want to encourage him when they think Cuomo’s doing the right thing.  

He says, for instance it’s great that Cuomo wants to extend the extra tax on millionaires, but he’d like to see the governor go further and agree to a plan by Assembly Democrats to add more, higher tax brackets for those making more than $5 million, and $10 million, topping out at $100 million.

“It’s good that he’s renewing the tax,” said Saunders, who says more money is needed for indigent legal services, but also for “cuts that are going to come from the federal government under President Trump”.

Cuomo’s made no provisions in his budget for federal funding cuts.

The group is also seeking the legalization of marijuana, saying the prosecutions and convictions of low-level pot possession can harm a person’s future chances for a good job. The governor’s spokesman says decriminalization of marijuana is already in the state spending plan. But Saunders, with Vocal New York, says, just like proposals to provide legal services for the poor, it’s just taking too long.  He says Cuomo first promised to lessen penalties for marijuana possession  when he was running for reelection for governor, nearly three years ago, when he made a commitment to the left-leaning Working Families Party.

“Why is he still talking about the need to end low level marijuana arrests when that was one of the progressive commitments?” Saunders asked.

Saunders blames Cuomo for not trying hard enough to elect more Democrats to the state senate in the past election cycle. Cuomo did back some Democratic candidates in 2016, but in the end the GOP lost just one incumbent seat.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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