However, she said that while the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, or CASA, was targeted for an $800,000 cutback, the Judiciary is committed to finding additional resources to keep the program running. Several legislators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, urged Prudenti to find the necessary funds for CASA.
"These children, if they don't get help, won't make it," Bonacic said.
Legislators at the hearing, who questioned Prudenti at length, gave no indication that they will not support the budget, which has already been endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo (NYLJ, Jan. 23). No one suggested cutbacks, and some lawmakers expressed concern that the Judiciary not go too far in its efforts to contain spending.
"Justice isn't cheap," said Assemblyman Al Graf, R-Holbrook. "You have to pay for it."
Senator John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, chairman of the upper chamber's Finance Committee and a longtime trial lawyer, encouraged Prudenti to look toward the OCA bureaucracy, rather than the courts, for places to cut spending.
Also at yesterday's joint budget hearing, Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, defended his $5.4 million budget, and Jonathan Gradess of the New York State Defenders Association urged the Legislature to establish a statewide/state-administered/state-funded public defense system to replace the patchwork system now in place.
Gradess noted that March 18 will mark the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right-to-counsel for poor defendants.
"Without resources adequate to the task, the guilty are often wrongly convicted for doing more than they did, the innocent are wrongly imprisoned for things they didn't do, mothers and children are needlessly separated from one another, foreign national taxpayers who have lived peaceful law-abiding lives are torn from their citizen children, the young are turned off to the authority of government and dedicated lawyers doing public defense work are in pain," Gradess said.
Tembeckjian asked for the same $5.4 million he has received every year since 2008, despite the fact that the agency's annual expenses increase by about 7 percent annually, largely because of contractual rent costs and legislatively mandated salary increases. He said the commission staff has been reduced from 55 in 2008 to 50 now, with five current vacancies, four of which he plans to delay filling for as long as necessary to save money.
"This is the fifth year in a row that our budget has been the same, requiring us to continue making serious economies, which we believe we can accomplish without compromising our core mission," Tembeckjian said. "However, it is becoming increasingly difficult."
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