Politico: Public defenders say city shortchanges them for representing vulnerable New Yorkers

By Joe Anuta
03/19/2019

The city should bake more money into its contracts so public defenders are paid similarly to attorneys in the city's Law Department, the Legal Aid Society plans to argue at a Tuesday budget hearing.

The nonprofit, along with a number of other organizations, has long said that the stagnant pay doled out through city contracts has made it hard to retain talent to represent some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, even while prosecutors on the other side of the courtroom have received extra money from city coffers.

In the upcoming budget, district attorneys' offices are set to receive millions of dollars to match the pay of their prosecutors to the levels of the city's in-house legal team, who sit at the top of the public practice food chain. To try and rectify an even greater mismatch with public defenders, Legal Aid plans to encourage city council members to add up to $15 million in this year's budget to boost the organization's bottom line and better pay staff.

"This inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage, impeding their ability to pursue careers as defenders," Janet Sabel, head of the nonprofit legal firm, said in a statement. "It's time to correct this and to ensure that staff on the front line receive fair compensation to continue to represent New York's historically marginalized communities."

Each year, the city inks contracts with nonprofit public defender organizations to provide the types of representation guaranteed by the Constitution, such as a lawyer for criminal defense — as well as for additional initiatives from the de Blasio administration, such as its recent effort to help tenants in housing court. However, a City Council report from last year found that public defenders often make less when compared to prosecutors in district attorneys' offices and the city's corporation counsel. And if public defenders aren't paid enough to live and pay off student loans, Legal Aid attorney Tina Luongo argued, they will exit the profession for higher-paying gigs and leave the remaining lawyers overburdened with caseloads. Legal Aid alone has shed 65 senior attorneys since last fiscal year, she said.

The Council's report from last year also noted that public defender organizations are responsible for overhead costs, such as renting space, that most district attorneys and corporation counsels are not. However, the Council also found that the highest-paid attorneys at the corporation-counsel level had the lowest retention rate of the three classes of public attorneys.

"This suggests that pay parity may not be the magic bullet to retain experienced attorneys at the district attorney's offices and public defender offices," the report noted.