New York City’s six major public defender groups are in such dire financial straits they fear they’ll collapse if they don’t see a $425 million funding increase in the next municipal budget, the Daily News has learned.
The six groups — the Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, Queens Defenders, Bronx Defender Services and Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem — provide free court representation to low-income New Yorkers in criminal and civil matters. But due to a deepening staffing crisis, the groups’ lawyer ranks are growing so thin that they are scrambling to fulfill their duties.
To address that, the groups will submit a request to the City Council on Monday that calls for the nine-figure funding bump.
Of the requested increase, $300 million would be for the groups’ civil practices and the practices of dozens of smaller partner providers, according to paperwork shared with The News. The remaining $125 million would be for their criminal practices.
That would be on top of the roughly $600 million the groups currently receive per year from the city, a pot that also funds appellate defender groups and some private attorneys representing low-income New Yorkers.
Without the funding boost, 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-life consequence of that, she added, is tens of thousands of indigent New Yorkers going without representation in housing, immigration and criminal courts.
“We are in the crosshairs of serious disaster here,” said Holder, who has worked at Legal Aid for over three decades. “I want to believe that we are able to sustain things, but, yes, we are at a breaking point.”
Mayor Adams and the City Council are in negotiations over next fiscal year’s municipal budget, which is due by July 1.
Adams’ first $102.7 billion budget proposal unveiled in January would keep city funding effectively flat for the public defender groups.
Adams spokesmen did not return requests for comment last week, but the mayor has voiced support for jacking up funding for public defenders as a way to help clear extensive court backlogs. He has said the responsibility for allocating that funding mostly lies with the state Legislature, though.
“Public defenders are overwhelmed and need our help immediately,” he testified in Albany last month. “The state must make a major investment in them now or risk depriving defendants of their constitutional right to a speedy trial.”
A spokesman for Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said her Democratic conference will push for more public defender money from both ends, saying “the city and state must partner to provide increased funding.”
The cause for the city public defender crisis is varied.
Pay parity agreements for public defense attorneys, brokered in 2019 under the de Blasio administration, were shelved because of the pandemic, and city funding for the groups has effectively stayed the same since then as a result.
That has kept wages stagnant — the starting salary for public defenders in the city is still about $75,000 — prompting many to leave for the private sector, where they can earn more at a time of soaring costs of living due to economic factors like inflation.
Legal Aid, which is the city’s largest group, currently has 328 vacancies out of the group’s more than 2,000 positions.
Stan German, a criminal defense attorney who leads the New York County Defender Services, said his group is also seeing troubling staff shortages.
Providers like the New York County Defender Services are struggling to fill vacancies because their wages are not competitive when compared to counterparts in other cities, like Oakland, Calif., where starting salaries for public defenders tops $100,000, German said.
The city’s comparatively low wages is also what’s driving lots of his current staff to leave, German said. And when attorneys leave, German noted that their cases must be reassigned to colleagues who are already struggling to handle massive workloads.
“It’s a vicious cycle that everybody is facing,” he said.
A chunk of the funding increase the groups are requesting would go toward making the city’s public defense wages more competitive, reps for the groups said. It would also go towards expanding the groups’ staff, and bridging funding shortfalls for increasingly expensive provider contracts.
Discovery reforms enacted by the state Legislature to speed up court proceedings have also caused additional expenses for the groups that need to be funded, the groups say.
Meantime, the need for public defense services has only increased since the pandemic, especially on the civil side, which is perhaps the sector that has felt the staffing crisis the most. That’s in part because landlords have filed thousands of eviction cases since the state eviction moratorium and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program expired last year.
According to data from the state Office of Court Administration, public defender providers had to decline more than 10,000 eviction cases between March 2022 and this past January — meaning tenants in those cases went without representation. That’s in spite of the fact that the city has a “Right to Counsel” program that’s supposed to ensure universal access to legal representation for housing court defendants.
“We are at this point where we just can’t take all the cases that are coming through, and it kills us because we know how important it is for people,” Holder said. “Legal representation is the difference between people being able to stay in there homes and becoming homeless.”
Indeed, Maria Carrasquilla, an Elmhurst, Queens, resident who lost her custodian job during the pandemic, said Legal Aid helped her stay in her home after her landlord sought to evict her in 2022 when she couldn’t afford her monthly $1,746 rent.
Legal Aid secured a Section 8 voucher for Carrasquilla, 64, that lowered her rent so significantly she can now afford it. She said she doesn’t think she would still have her apartment without the 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 so far. But he said his attorneys are spread so thin they sometimes have to represent more than 50 clients at a time.
“We are meeting our contractual obligations to provide representation, but the question isn’t if intake is falling through the cracks,” he said. “The question is: What does quality representation look like? How can you provide quality representation under those circumstances? Ultimately, quality representation is what suffers.”
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