Reply to Justice on the Cheap (The Nation, May 21, 2001)
By Michael Letwin
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325
In Amy Bach’s article on the indigent defense crisis (May 21), consultant Robert Spangenberg makes the puzzling claim that New York City’s use of contracts for such representation is “one of the best.” In fact, as extensively reported last month by the New York Times, New York’s indigent defense contracts promote the very same “drive-by” representation that Ms. Bach rightly criticizes in other jurisdictions.
The NYC contracts alluded to by Mr. Spangenberg are by-products of the Giuliani administration’s response to a legally-protected October 1994 strike in which Legal Aid Society attorneys and support staff sought, as they have since the late 1960s, to defend the quality of representation for indigent New Yorkers.
Intent on breaking the strike and making an example of the attorneys, Giuliani abruptly cancelled the Society’s city contract and threatened strikers with a PATCO-style blacklist. Immediately afterwards, the administration began to inflict huge cuts in the Society’s city funding.
Since 1994, the resulting cumulative $160 million cut 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 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 innocuous names as “Brooklyn Defender Services” and “Bronx Defenders”–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.
Fixing it means ending, rather than praising, Giuliani’s indigent defense contracts.