The public defenders’ burden

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Julie Cianca defends the indigent against criminal charges, from misdemeanors to high-profile felonies.
(This photo and homepage photo by Mike Costanza)

Every workday presents new hurdles for Special Assistant Public Defender Julie Cianca.

“There’s always going to be something that’s going to tickle me, or challenge me to fix or solve,” she says.

During nearly 25 years with the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, Cianca has defended the indigent against criminal charges. Those have ranged from misdemeanors to high-profile felonies—she defended Alex Rideout, who was accused of the 2016 murder of his father. That case also won her recognition.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride. Public defenders in Monroe County shouldered the burden of 27,278 cases in 2018 alone. Recent changes to the eligibility standards for indigent defense, allowing more people access to attorneys, have further increased some of their caseloads. 

The Monroe County Public Defender’s Office is mandated to legally represent those deemed too poor to hire their own counsel in criminal and family court cases. Its attorneys stand with their clients in a variety of settings, from town courts to Monroe County Family Court to the New York State Court of Appeals. On rare occasions, the office has even argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The department has a current budget of $12.4 million and employs 74 attorneys, including 11 special assistants.

“Each one of us with that title has a certain area that we supervise,” Cianca explains.

Born to be a lawyer

Cianca, who was born and raised in Rush, has wanted to be a lawyer since she was a child.

“My mother used to say that she watched ‘Perry Mason’ when she was pregnant with me, and that’s what made me that way,” she says.

The Albany Law School graduate joined the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office in 1994, soon after passing the bar. Like all new hires, Cianca got her feet wet in the county’s many town and village courts, where she represented clients who were accused of misdemeanors, violations of law, probation violations and, in some cases, non-violent felonies. 

Monroe County’s public defenders, like those in other parts of the state, have historically had heavy caseloads. Attorneys currently assigned to town and village courts can handle as many as 500 cases a year—about two-thirds more than the state currently considers appropriate. The job requires very long days—the courts meet at night—and a willingness to ascend a steep learning curve. 

“When you first start here, you have to have an enormous amount of stamina and patience with yourself,” Cianca says. “There’s so many new concepts you’re learning.”

After a time, Cianca moved up to Rochester City Court. Though the hours were fewer, caseloads remained high, and the individual cases became more difficult.

“Out in the towns, you might get a lot of driving offenses, a lot of DWI,” Cianca explains. “When you come in the city, you might start getting more issues related to the Fourth Amendment, probable cause issues, police interactions.”

The Fourth Amendment protects against arbitrary arrests, and is the foundation of the laws regarding stops, frisks, searches and government surveillance. 

Then came Monroe County Court, where Cianca sometimes defended those accused of non-violent felonies.

“County Court (for nonviolent offenses) was very frustrating, because people were facing going to jail for what appeared to be minor offenses,” Cianca says. “(A) young woman tries to pass another person’s check, but it’s a felony charge, and she could go to prison.”

Defending those accused of violent felonies presented its own challenges—and attractions.

“Violent felony is the most interesting by far, but the pressure is always understanding the amount of time that people can do if they’re convicted, or the effect that a conviction can have on their life,” Cianca says.

Weighing evidence

Whatever the charge or crime, Cianca views the accused as a person with a problem that needs to be solved.

“My conversation with them is never, ‘What did you do or what happened,’” she says. “The person who has to answer my questions is the government, not my client.”

In all cases, Cianca examines the evidence and gauges whether it’s sufficient to prosecute or convict her client. In a very small number, the conclusion appears to be fairly obvious to her.

“I have had people plead guilty to murder where the evidence has been so overwhelming that I was fully satisfied that they had committed the crime,” Cianca says.

About 95 percent of the time, the evidence is insufficient to prosecute or convict, at least in her view. 

“I just recently had a rape case where (the defendant’s) daughter, after 10 years or so, decided that he had raped her when she was between the ages of 3 and 9,” Cianca explains. “The evidence just isn’t there, but nevertheless you’ve got an indictment.”

The #MeToo movement has led some people, including jurors, to be more prone to believing such accusations, according to Cianca. 

“When it’s just simply somebody saying, ‘These things happened to me,’ then that’s a default that we always see,” she says. “That’s so unfair and illogical, but that’s where we end up.”

Though Cianca’s client was acquitted, the public defender believes that the accusation of child molestation alone could leave him with a stigma for the rest of his life.

Even when the evidence appears to be against a client, Cianca might not agree with a guilty verdict. The case of Alex Rideout, whom she defended on felony charges in 2017, is one example.

Back in 2016, 17-year-old Rideout, his older brother Colin, their mother Laura and her boyfriend Paul Tucci were accused of murdering Penfield resident Craig Rideout, who was Laura’s estranged husband and the boys’ father. One day after his beaten and bloody body was found in Yates County, Monroe County sheriff’s deputies arrested the two brothers in Mendon Ponds Park. Colin was emerging from a wooded path, and Alex was sitting in their car’s passenger seat. Deputies found evidence of the murder in the car’s trunk and in a nearby pond. 

Alex was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge, but convicted of two evidence tampering charges. He was sentenced to up to five years in prison, and was denied parole in 2018. 

Cianca is still disappointed with the jury’s verdict.

“There was no evidence that (Alex) was ever doing anything but sitting in the front seat of the car, which is not principal or accomplice liability,” she asserts. 

Though she recognizes that she can’t win every case, Cianca takes losses badly.

“I think that if it doesn’t work, it’s my fault. I picked a bad jury. I wasn’t clear. I didn’t make this as cohesive as it obviously was,” she says. “It’s so devastating.”

Public recognition 

In 2017, the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office presented its Jeffrey A. Jacobs Memorial Award to Cianca in recognition of her work on the Rideout case. The award is given to criminal defense attorneys who have been fierce advocates for their clients, dedicated to their defense and committed to fair justice. A committee of judges, public defenders and criminal defense attorneys in private practice selects those to be so honored. 

Tim Donaher, Monroe County public defender, says they made the right choice that year.

“In that particular trial, Julie certainly exemplified the qualities that led to the creation of the Jeff Jacobs award,” he says. “She was a fierce advocate for her client; she successfully challenged the forensic evidence in the case and obtained a very favorable outcome for her client in a very challenging case.”

These are busy days for Cianca. 

 “I’ve done about 30 trials in the past four years,” she explains. “It’s been very, very trial-heavy.”

Cianca had 29 cases in her pile at the end of September, and more could have come in since then. In addition to representing her clients, she also supervises her agency’s Continuing Legal Education program, where she teaches as well. 

Though Cianca sometimes puts in a 60-hour week, she still finds time to lend a helping hand to others in her field. Jon Getz, a partner and co-founder at Vahey Getz LLP, recently picked her brain about one of his cases.

Jon Getz

“She’s willing to provide other professionals her experience and her knowledge,” says Getz, who met Cianca back in the early 1990s, when he worked for the public defender’s office.

Colleagues praise her work.

“(Cianca) is one of the best criminal defense attorneys in our community,” Donaher says. “In addition to her considerable legal skills, Julie has an impressive ability to empathize with her clients, and convey to the court or a jury the best qualities of her clients.” 

A sense of fun

Despite her schedule—and the seriousness of her work—Cianca has kept her sense of fun. A stuffed shark swims atop the fake fireplace in her office. 

“When I saw ‘Jaws,’ I got obsessed with sharks,” she says. “I’ve seen the movie, like, 454 times.”

Next to it stands a copy of the movie’s script that all the principal actors signed, and a photo of co-star Roy Scheider. Cianca quotes his iconic line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Julie Cianca enjoys horseback riding.

When she needs to deal with stress, the Rochester resident rides horseback, practices yoga, listens to music, spends time with her friends and relatives and shops— she has a huge perfume collection, and several pairs of pumps jostle for space beneath her desk.

Cianca also enjoys traveling with her husband, Mark. 

“Planning for, looking forward to and experiencing new places is a great distraction,” she says.

The couple just returned from a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, and has visited England, France, Italy, Iceland, Mexico, the Bahamas, Arizona, Florida and other faraway places. 

Heavy caseloads

Those years could bring higher caseloads for her and her colleagues, due to recent changes in the financial standards for indigent defense. 

In New York, an individual who wishes to obtain the assistance of a public defender generally must meet financial standards to qualify for representation. Until recently, the person’s income could come to no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines , a dollar amount that’s been adjusted upward yearly. To qualify in 2016, a single person without dependents could have no more than $14,850 in annual income. Judges usually have the final say on whether someone is eligible.

The state Office of Indigent Legal Services, which is tasked with improving legal services to the poor, decided that standard no longer fit the bill. 

,Tim Donaher, Monroe County public defender

“It was leaving too many people unable to obtain counsel, without counsel, or basically having to impose upon friends and family to beg and borrow to get money in order to retain an attorney,” Donaher explains.

On July 1, 2017, the public defender’s office implemented new ILS standards  for indigent defense that raised the income limit to 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline, or $30,150 at the time. The change drove the office’s annual caseloads up by about 1,000 in both 2017 and 2018, Donaher says. 

How the influx affected individual attorneys’ burdens depended in part upon the kinds of cases they were usually assigned. Since roughly 80 percent of the additional cases were misdemeanors, substantial numbers of new clients went to the public defenders who usually work in town and city courts. 

“You saw about an increase of about 500 in city court and 320 to 330 in town court,” Donaher says. 

As a result, the average caseloads of those public defenders rose by between 20 and 30 cases in 2018. Attorneys who were assigned felonies might have fared better, the result of increased state aid.

At about the same time as it enlarged public defenders’ pool of potential clients, ILS recommended new caseload limits that reflected some reductions. The original guidelines were set by the American Bar Association back in the 1970s.

“The old caseload guidelines were basically no more than 400 misdemeanors or no more than 150 felonies,” Donaher explains. 

Those guidelines do not appear to have been met over the years. When Getz was with the public defender’s office, he and his colleagues had way more cases than the ABA recommended, he says.

“The attorneys worked very hard, and were many times overextended,” Getz says. “Especially in the town courts, you’d get home at midnight (or) one o’clock in the morning, and then you’re up getting back to work at eight.”

The new ILS standards, which the agency issued in May 2017, divided cases into seven types, and reduced the recommended per-person annual misdemeanor caseload to 300. The total number of felony cases stayed at 150, but that was broken down into 50 violent and 100 non-violent cases. The guidelines do not become mandatory until 2023.

Significant concern

Current caseloads far exceed the ILS recommendations. Individual Monroe County public defenders were assigned an average 464 town and city court cases in 2018, and as many as 225 nonviolent felony cases and 80 violent felony cases. That year, Cianca had a total of 92 cases on her plate. Numbers like that leave some in the county concerned. 

“Some of the hardest-working lawyers in the county work for the public defender’s office,” says Alex White, Rochester City Council candidate and community activist. “I just think the workload is beyond their capacity to meet the requirements of good legal representation.”

Ted Forsyth, a community organizer with the group Enough is Enough, praises the work of local public defenders, but supports caseload reductions.

“Ideally, we’d like to have a well-staffed, well-resourced public defender’s office that can effectively, zealously defend their clients,” he says.

Donaher has started to reduce his attorneys’ caseloads, using an influx of state aid. In 2018, the state Legislature passed a bill granting a total of $250 million in additional funding to all public defender’s offices, which ILS is giving out annually in progressively larger amounts. Donaher used much of the first $2.5 million in aid to assign felony cases to private attorneys who are paid to take on such cases for Monroe County. 

“We’re sending over about 1,000 cases,” he explains. “As a result of that, my felony staffs’ caseloads are reduced significantly.” 

If the state Legislature follows through on its promises, Monroe County should receive a total of $12.5 million in aid for indigent defense by the end of 2023. Donaher plans to use it to continue reducing his attorneys’ caseloads and hire new staff.

“I am going to have to add double-digit number of attorneys, easily, in order to meet the caseload caps,” he says.

The changes at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office haven’t affected Cianca’s career plans for the coming years. 

“Every day there’s new problems to solve,” she says. “I think I’ll close out doing this.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

2 thoughts on “The public defenders’ burden

  1. Great insight into the work of the unsung heroes at the PD’s office. As a community, we need to better understand the process and the challenges faced in providing quality legal representation to the poor. Kudos to Julie and her colleagues on their commitment.

  2. I moved my family recently from Brighton to an apartment downtown, when I walk my dog I see the same homeless people. My parents came from NY City where talking to someone homeless was frequently taking your life in your hands, especially when the mentally ill were dumped on the streets. Here every single person I’ve even waved to has smiled and waved back, which tells me that they’re as much human as the rest of us, and seeking whatever small portion of dignity they can. The dignity to being recognized as actually human being foremost.

    Each one of these people has a story, I don’t ask but there’s no doubt that there are lots of similarities, some medical condition, DUI or involvement with the law for some “offense,” usually minor. Then the downhill slide, even more grinding poverty and soon, the streets.

    We as a society need to recognize these people exist, exist AS PEOPLE. Kudos to the Public Defenders for helping them under circumstances of overwork and under-resources.

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