New York City’s six major public defender groups are in such dire financial straits they fear they will collapse if they don’t see a $425 million funding increase in the next city budget, the Daily News has learned.
The six groups—Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, Queens Defenders, Bronx Defender Services, and Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem—provide free legal representation to low-income New Yorkers in criminal and civil matters. But due to a deepening personnel crisis, the ranks of the groups’ lawyers are thinning so much that they are struggling to carry out their duties.
To address that, the groups will submit an application to the City Council on Monday asking for the nine-figure funding increase.
Of the requested increase, $300 million would go to the civil practices of the groups and the practices of dozens of smaller partner providers, according to documents shared with The News. The remaining $125 million would be for his criminal practices.
That would be in addition to the roughly $600 million the groups currently receive per year from the city, a fund that also funds appellate advocacy groups and some private attorneys who represent low-income New Yorkers.
Without the increased funding, Adriene Holder, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s civil practice, said she fears her group’s basic operations will falter. The real consequence of that, she added, is that tens of thousands of destitute New Yorkers are left without representation in criminal, immigration and housing courts.
“We are in the crosshairs of a major disaster here,” said Holder, who has worked at Legal Aid for more than three decades. “I want to believe that we are capable of sustaining things, but yes, we are at a breaking point.”
Mayor Adams and the City Council are in negotiations on the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, which is due July 1.
Adams’ first $102.7 billion budget proposal, introduced in January, would keep city funding unchanged for public defender groups.
Spokesmen for Adams did not return requests for comment last week, but the mayor has expressed support for increased funding for public defenders as a way to help eliminate extensive court backlogs. However, he has said that the responsibility for allocating those funds rests primarily with the state Legislature.
“Public defenders are overwhelmed and need our help immediately,” he testified in Albany last month. “The state must make a huge investment in them now or risk depriving defendants of their constitutional right to a speedy trial.”
A spokesperson for Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said her Democratic conference will push for more money for public defenders on both sides, saying “the city and state need to partner to provide more funding.”
The cause of the city’s public defender crisis is manifold.
Pay parity deals for public defense attorneys, negotiated in 2019 under the de Blasio administration, were shelved due to the pandemic, and as a result, city funding for the groups has remained the same ever since.
That has kept salaries stagnant — the starting salary for public defenders in the city is still about $75,000 — prompting many to go into the private sector, where they can earn more at a time when costs of living are soaring. due to economic factors such as inflation.
Legal Aid, which is the largest group in the city, currently has 328 openings of the group’s more than 2,000 positions.
Stan German, a criminal defense attorney who heads New York County Defense Services, said his group is also experiencing a troubling staff shortage.
Providers like New York County Defender Services are struggling to fill openings because their salaries are not competitive compared to their counterparts in other cities, such as Oakland, California, where starting salaries for public defenders exceed $100,000, German said.
The city’s comparatively low wages are also what’s prompting many of its current employees to leave, German said. And when lawyers leave, German said their cases need to be reassigned to colleagues who are already struggling to handle massive caseloads.
“It’s a vicious cycle that everyone faces,” he said.
A portion of the increased funding the groups are requesting would go toward making city public defender salaries more competitive, representatives for the groups said. It would also go towards expanding the groups’ staff and bridging funding gaps for increasingly expensive supplier contracts.
Discovery reforms enacted by the state Legislature to expedite court proceedings have also caused additional expenses for groups in need of funding, the groups say.
Meanwhile, the need for public defense services has only increased since the pandemic, especially on the civilian side, which is perhaps the sector that has felt the personnel crisis the most. That’s partly because landlords have filed thousands of eviction cases since the state’s moratorium on evictions and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program expired last year.
According to data from the state’s Office of Court Administration, public defender providers had to reject more than 10,000 eviction cases between March 2022 and this past January, meaning tenants in those cases were left unrepresented. That’s despite the fact that the city has a “Right to Counsel” program that is supposed to guarantee universal access to legal representation for housing court defendants.
“We’re at this point where we just can’t take every case that comes along, and that kills us because we know how important it is to people,” Holder said. “Legal representation is the difference between people being able to stay in their homes and being homeless.”
In fact, Maria Carrasquilla, an Elmhurst, Queens, resident who lost her custodial job during the pandemic, said Legal Aid helped her stay in her home after her landlord tried to evict her in 2022 when she couldn’t pay her monthly rent. of $1,746.
Legal Aid obtained a Section 8 voucher for Carrasquilla, 64, who reduced her rent so significantly that she can now afford it. She said that she does not believe that she would still have her apartment without legal assistance.
“This kept me up at night. I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish.
Unlike his colleagues on the civil side, German said criminal public defenders in the city have not had to deny defendants’ representations thus far. But he said his lawyers are so spread out that they sometimes have to represent more than 50 clients at a time.
“We are meeting our contractual obligations to provide representation, but the question is not whether admission is falling through the cracks,” he said. “The question is: How is the quality representation? How can you provide quality representation in those circumstances? Ultimately, quality representation is what suffers.”