The Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem issued a joint statement today calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to follow United States Senator Kamala Harris’ lead by closing the salary gap between indigent defense and other non-profit legal service staff, and their courtroom adversaries – namely Corporation Counsel – who have historically earned significantly more in yearly salary.
Harris recently introduced the 'Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense' (EQUAL) Act’ - legislation that would set workload limits for full-time public defenders and, within five years, make pay equal between public defenders and prosecutors. The bill also authorizes funds for training public defenders and reauthorizing student loan repayment programs.
The organizations said - “United States Senator Kamala Harris understands that public defenders and other legal staff serving low-income Americans across the country continue to earn far less than their courtroom adversaries. This reality is compounded by skyrocketing student loan debt, and for our staff in New York, the City’s exorbitant cost of living. Keeping with the Mayor’s mission to make ‘New York the fairest big city in America,’ we hope that he will prioritize salary parity for our staff in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. This is not just a fundamental issue of equity for our staff but for the clients that we represent in criminal, immigration, housing, and other legal matters on a daily basis.”
Last October, the City Council examined the pay disparity between public defenders and City lawyers. Representatives from defender organizations and their staff shared personal stories about how the lack of parity undercuts the ability to pursue careers serving the public; the ability to raise a family locally; and how it also sends the message to defenders that their work and mandate is less important than that of the job performed by their adversaries.
This issue was raised again by local defenders and legal services organizations at a City Council budget hearing in March. Just this past April, the City Council issued its budget response and recommended a $15 million allocation in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to bridge the parity divide. To truly close the parity divide, defenders and legal services organizations are requesting a combined $50 million in funding.
According to a Legal Aid analysis of Corporation Counsel’s pay scale, that office can pay their attorneys with ten years’ experience an estimated annual salary between $95,000 and $108,000, which is significantly higher than defenders’ ability to pay their staff with the same experience level.
Moreover, Legal Aid reviewed retention rates of its Criminal Defense Practice attorneys who were hired between 2007 and 2017, and discovered that, as the years of service and experience of staff increased, the rate of retention decreased, with the largest percentages of staff leaving between their fifth and tenth year of service. By the tenth year, essentially half of that year’s hiring class – nearly 48 percent – had departed for other employers. Brief reviews of Legal Aid’s Civil and Juvenile Practices revealed a similar trend, with lawyers exiting to jobs in City and State government. Other public defense organizations across the city have experienced this challenge of retention, as well.
To follow this campaign on social media, search by the #PayParityNow and #NoJusticeWithoutUs hashtags.