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Groundbreaking Program Assigns Public Defenders to Immigrant Defendants

Posted by Matthew Green | Apr 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

In general, immigrants are not guaranteed an attorney if they cannot afford one. This leads many immigrant defendants to go it alone. However, there is a new program in New York that is working to change that.

Currently, the program is in its pilot year and is still considered to be in its infant stage. However, there is great promise and many are hopeful that it will be a success. The New York City Council has provided the program with $500,000. This is enough for approximately 20 percent of locally detained immigrants to receive legal counsel from a public defender. However, the goal is to raise $7.4 million in order for all detained immigrants in the city to be provided with an attorney.

One big supporter of this new program is Peter Markowitz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York as well as a cofounder of the legal counsel program, known as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. “Day after day, people are getting deported who shouldn't be deported,” he said. This program could help change that.

Another positive effect of this program is courtroom efficiency. Generally, when a defendant is represented by counsel, the proceedings can move along much more quickly than they would if the defendant was representing himself. This is due, in part, because the attorney has already explained legal issues and potential consequences to her client which therefore allows the client to be better informed.

In addition, attorneys will often educate the client on potential defenses that were previously unknown to the client. "The thought that someone could go up against a trained government attorney, argue a complicated area of law without legal training and competently represent themselves is really a fiction. It will rarely happen," said Oren Root, director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice.

According to a recent study conducted before this new program was implemented, more than two-thirds of immigrants in detention centers represented themselves, with a dismal success rate of only 3 percent. In contrast, detainees who were represented by counsel experienced an 18 percent success rate.

Other areas of the country are apparently anxious to start their own programs. In Los Angeles, public interest firms are representing countless immigrants every year, with resources provided by pro bono attorneys who work in private firms. Judy London, the head of Public Counsel's Immigrants' Rights Project, has said that it's surprising that New York was the first to begin a program like this. “It's staggering that we don't have that, considering our needs here are as great or greater than New York's,” she said.

Of course, there are naysayers who argue that this is not the best use of public funds. However, proponents of the project argue that the money saved by keeping detention times shorter will more than pay for the cost of the program.

What do you think? Could a program like this potentially be a turning point in the criminal justice system and immigration policy?

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Partner. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...


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