2001.05.18: Letter to the NYT About Indigent Defense in NYC

Letter to the NYT About Indigent Defense in NYC
May 18, 2001

To the editor:

Joyce Purnick is right to point out that pay for private assigned defense counsel must be increased (May 17). But, as recent Times reports have shown (April 8-10), the problem with indigent criminal defense in New York City has less to do with neglect in Albany than with Giuliani administration policies that have intentionally fragmented and weakened an already-troubled indigent defense system.

That policy has its origins in the administration’s response to an October 1994 strike in which attorneys and support staff at The Legal Aid Society–the city’s primary defender agency–sought to defend the quality of representation for indigent New Yorkers.

Though this federally-protected strike caused no disruption in the courts, the Mayor abruptly cancelled the Society’s city contract and threatened strikers with a PATCO-style blacklist. Immediately afterwards, the administration began to inflict huge punitive cuts in the Society’s city funding.

Since 1994, the resulting cumulative $160 million reduction in the Society’s city funds has whittled the number of Legal Aid’s public defenders from 520 down to 370. Those who remain to represent an undiminished 200,000 clients each year—without surrendering their commitment to quality–are near, at, or well beyond the breaking point.

The administration has used these funds to pay for an explosion of unmonitored, poorly-paid, overwhelmed private counsel. In addition, it has subsidized seven small-volume, runaway (nonunion) contractors–bearing such deceptively legitimate-sounding names as “Brooklyn Defender Services,” “Bronx Defenders,” and “Appellate Advocates”–paid more to do less, and beholden to Giuliani 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 murders, but for feeding thousands of Black and Latino teenagers into the criminal justice assembly line. It is a picture that, each day, makes New York City look more like Texas.

The key to reforming this indigent defense tragedy lies in ending these destructive policies and in fully restoring Legal Aid Society funding.

Michael Letwin, President
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325

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