HUDSON — Columbia County officials will consider redirecting $423,000 in state funds to contract with four attorneys to provide night-time arraignments in all town and village courts in the county.
Columbia County Public Defender D.J. Cornelius requested at Tuesday’s county Public Safety Committee meeting permission to redirect state funds to pay four attorneys, acting as independent contractors, to be on call when a town or village judge needs arraignment services at a cost of no more than $35,000 per year per attorney.
The committee unanimously approved Cornelius’ request.
This will be a state-mandated service, Cornelius said, but the public defender had to fight the state for the $423,000 in funding to be spread out over three years.
“The state is phasing this in,” Cornelius said. “I have been talking with the state since February. I told them I would not move forward until it was funded.”
Cornelius had originally proposed two part-time attorneys, acting as county employees, to work in the public defender’s office at 610 State St., in Hudson, at night and cover arraignment services at five courts in the county, but Cornelius said the plan could pose costly problems for the county.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have young attorneys in a county building after hours with no one there,” Cornelius said. “It could be a liability, or we would need security.”
The four paid night attorneys will work from their homes and be on call when a judge in any of the 22 town and village courts in Columbia County needs arraignment services.
The Greene County Public Defender’s Office started providing night-time and weekend arraignments Oct. 1. Greene County schedules attorneys already working for the public defender for night and weekend shifts to cover courts in the towns of Coxsackie, Athens, Cairo and Catskill and the Village of Catskill.
One attorney will be on call overnight from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. and on weekends starting Friday night. Another attorney will serve as a backup. Attorneys are given about 30 minutes to get to court.
“It is tough for us considering the geography so we are covering the largest courts with the highest number of crimes,” Greene County Public Defender Angelo Scaturro said. “It is working well from what I can see. We are seeing a lot more people being let go than staying in jail. You know the prosecutor provides his recommendation, but no one was there to argue for the defendant.”
Greene County received $557,409 in state funding to be used over three years to start up its program. Scaturro plans to expand the program in the future by hiring new employees for his office.
“We are moving towards a more centralized arraignment system,” Scaturro said. “That way attorneys will provide arraignment services at a centralized county court.”
Cornelius’ request sparked discussion among supervisors on the committee.
“Those attorneys will get this money if they do one arraignment or multiple arraignments,” said Austerlitz Town Supervisor Robert Lagonia, who expressed concern about the amount of money being put towards this service. “And we are talking thousands of dollars per arraignment.”
Lagonia was not alone in this concern, but Cornelius said that with the state funding, the proposal is budget neutral, welcome words as the county looks to close out its budget season by the end of the year.
Night arraignment is just one of several advances from the state to put more resources into play for indigent defendants.
The Columbia County Public Defender’s Office recently received other funds for enhancing defendant services, including $101,162 over a three-year period from the state Office of Indigent Legal Services to fund multiple positions in the public defender’s office and $50,581 over three years from the state to provide investigation services, both of which the county Board of Supervisors approved at its monthly meeting Nov. 14.
“The state has put a lot of money into the prosecutor’s office over the years,” said Columbia County Controller Ronald Caponera. “Now they are trying to catch up on the public defender’s side.”
Copake Town Supervisor Jeffrey Nayer expressed concern that the funding is for three years and asked what happens when the funds dry up. Because the four attorneys will be independent contractors, the county doesn’t have to renew the agreements with them after three years, Cornelius said.
The county will need to plan for what it will do in three years if the state is going to mandate the services, Nayer said.
“We do not have anyone providing these services right now and we have been waiting for this for a while now,” said Hudson Fourth Ward Supervisor Linda Mussmann, who is not a member of the committee. “I really support this idea.”
Another issue the county may contend with is finding attorneys interested in the positions, but Cornelius said he thinks younger attorneys should be interested.
“If the state is going to mandate this and we have the funding, I do not see any problem with this,” said Ghent Town Supervisor Michael Benvenuto, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.