The Daily News has learned that New York City’s six major public defender groups are in such dire financial straits that they fear collapse unless they see a $425 million increase in funding in the next municipal budget.
Six groups—Legal Aid Society, New York County Advocacy, Brooklyn Advocacy, Queens Advocacy, Bronx Advocacy, and Harlem Borough Advocacy—provide free legal representation for low-income New Yorkers in criminal and civil cases. But due to the deepening personnel crisis, the ranks of the group’s lawyers are so thin that they can hardly fulfill their duties.
To address the issue, the groups will submit a request to City Council on Monday calling for a nine-figure increase in funding.
Of the requested increase, $300 million of the requested increase will go to civilian practice groups and the practices of dozens of smaller provider partners, according to documents provided to The News. The remaining $125 million will go to their criminal activities.
This will be on top of the roughly $600 million the groups currently receive per year from the city, a cauldron that also funds appellate defense groups and some private attorneys representing low-income New Yorkers.
Adrienne Holder, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s civil practice, said that without increased funding, her group’s core operations would falter. She added that as a result of this, in real life, tens of thousands of poor New Yorkers will be left without representation in housing, immigration and criminal courts.
“Here we are on the brink of a major disaster,” said Holder, who has worked at Legal Aid for more than three decades. “I want to believe that we are able to maintain the situation, but yes, we are at the limit.”
Mayor Adams and the city council are negotiating a municipal budget for the next fiscal year, due out by July 1.
Adams’ first $102.7 billion budget proposal, unveiled in January, would allow the city’s funding for public defender groups to effectively stay the same.
Adams’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment last week, but the mayor spoke out in support of increased funding for public defenders to help clear extensive legal backlogs. However, he said that the responsibility for allocating this funding lies primarily with the State Legislature.
“Public defenders are overwhelmed and need our help immediately,” he testified in Albany last month. “The state must now invest heavily in them, otherwise it risks depriving the defendants of their constitutional right to a speedy trial.”
Council Speaker spokeswoman Adrienne Adams said her Democratic Conference will push for increased funding for public defenders from both sides, saying “the city and state must work together to provide increased funding.”
The reasons for the crisis of urban public defenders are various.
Pay parity agreements for state attorneys brokered in 2019 by the de Blasio administration were put on hold due to the pandemic, and as a result, city funding for the groups has effectively remained the same ever since.
This has resulted in wages stagnating—the starting salary for public defenders in the city is still around $75,000—prompting many to move into the private sector, where they can earn more at a time of soaring cost of living due to behind economic factors such as inflation.
Legal Aid, the largest group in the city, currently has 328 vacancies out of the group’s over 2,000 positions.
Stan German, a criminal defense attorney who heads the New York County Defense Services, said his group is also seeing a worrying shortage of staff.
Providers like New York County Protective Services are scrambling to fill vacancies because their salaries are not competitive with counterparts in other cities like Oakland, Calif., where public defenders start in salaries in excess of $100,000, Herman said. .
Comparatively low wages in the city are also a reason why many of his current employees leave, Herman said. And as the lawyers leave, Herman noted that their cases should be handed over to colleagues who are already struggling to cope with the sheer volume of work.
“It’s a vicious cycle that everyone faces,” he said.
Part of the funding increase the groups are asking for will go towards making the city’s public defenders’ salaries more competitive, the groups said. It would also go towards expanding the bands staff and overcoming the lack of funding for increasingly expensive supplier contracts.
Disclosure reforms passed by the state legislature to expedite litigation have also created additional costs for groups that need to be funded, the groups said.
Meanwhile, the need for public protection services has only increased since the pandemic, especially in the civilian sector, which is perhaps the most affected by the personnel crisis. That’s partly because landlords have filed thousands of eviction cases since the state eviction moratorium and Emergency Rent Assistance Program expired last year.
Public defender providers had to dismiss more than 10,000 eviction cases between March 2022 and last January, according to the State Judicial Administration, meaning tenants in those cases were left without representation. This is despite the city’s Right to Defense program, which is supposed to provide universal access to legal representation for housing defendants.
“We’re at this point where we just can’t take all the cases that come in and it’s killing 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 them becoming homeless.”
Indeed, Maria Carrasquilla, an Elmhurst, Queens resident who lost her job as a caretaker during the pandemic, said legal assistance helped her stay in her home after her landlord tried to evict her in 2022 when she couldn’t afford her monthly rent in in the amount of 1746 dollars.
Legal aid received a voucher under the 8th program for 64-year-old Carrasquilla, which reduced her rent so much that she can now afford it. She said she didn’t think she would have had the apartment without legal help.
“It kept me awake at night. I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish.
Unlike his colleagues on the civilian side, Herman said the city’s public criminal defenders have not yet had to deny representation to defendants. But he said his lawyers are so spread out that they sometimes have to represent more than 50 clients at once.
“We are fulfilling our contractual obligations to provide representation, but the question is not whether the reception is not respected,” he said. “The question is: what does a quality performance look like? How can you ensure quality representation in such circumstances? Ultimately, the performance suffers.”