2001.04.27: Legal Help for Poor (Chief-Leader)

The Chief-Leader, April 27, 2001

Legal Help for Poor

To the Editor:

The New York Times’s expose of  “drive-by” criminal representation for poor defendants (April 8-10) vividly shows that retaliatory Giuliani administration policies have, predictably, fragmented and weakened an already-troubled indigent defense system. As this reporting makes clear, it need never have been.

In early 1994, a previous Times investigatory series illuminated gross deficiencies in the assigned counsel system. Soon after, the administration agreed to observe the city’s 1965 indigent defense plan by assigning all non-conflict cases to the highly-respected Legal Aid Society, whose unionized attorneys had fought since the 1960s to lift the quality of criminal defense. But this opportunity for reform was abandoned when the Mayor unlawfully blocked an inexpensive labor settlement that the Society had been prepared to self-fund, thereby provoking a two-day strike in October 1994 by Legal Aid attorneys and support staff.

Though this Federally-protected strike caused no disruption in the courts, a furious Mayor was determined to make an example of the lawyers—even if it meant breaking the law to do so. As alluded to in the recent Times reports, striking attorneys were bludgeoned back to work by abrupt cancellation of the Society’s city contract and the threat of a PATCO-style blacklist. Immediately afterwards, 9 million was cut from the Society’s $79 million city funding, and it was announced that millions more would be transferred to numerous small providers—some of them for-profit businesses, none of them unionized—to be created specifically for that purpose.

With Legal Aid increasingly hobbled, a growing number of non-conflict cases are handled by unmonitored, poorly-paid private 18-B counsel, whose overflowing number of indigent clients must compete for attention not only with each other, but with those who can afford to pay. Meanwhile, millions of dollars stripped from Legal Aid subsidize small-volume, runaway (nonunion) contractors beholden to the administration for their very existence. This increasingly dysfunctional defense system competes with fully-funded prosecutors, and with an NYPD responsible not only for the infamous Diallo/Dorismond killings, but for feeding thousands of black and Latino teenagers into the criminal justice assembly line.

It is a picture that, each day, looks a little more like Southern justice. Steps to fix it must include:

*Equal Funding. The Supreme Courts landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright will be meaningful only when the city matches each dollar spent on law enforcement with a dollar for indigent defense. This must include eliminating the huge salary advantage of prosecutors over Legal Aid attorneys and dramatically raising pitiful 18-B fees.

*Primary Defense. The Times reports make clear that an indigent defense system motivated by union-busting and political revenge is inconsistent with adequate constitutionally-mandated representation. Rational reform begins with a recognition that a re-funded Legal Aid retains the unparalleled institutional independence, economy of scale, ancillary services, experience and dedicated staff to provide high quality, cost-effective representation in all non-conflict cases.

*Uniform Standards. To end the current race to the bottom, primary and conflict defenders alike must be governed by uniform high-quality standards for which unionized Legal Aid attorneys have fought for thirty years.

This is an indigent defense system of which New Yorkers could be proud.

MICHAEL LETWIN
Editor’s note: The writer is president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325.

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