Public defenders and legal service providers rally for increased city funding

City funded defense attorneys say they aren’t getting paid enough and are losing staff.

Public defenders and legal service providers rally for budget increases outside City Hall on March 20.

Public defenders and legal service providers rally for budget increases outside City Hall on March 20. Angelique Molina-Mangaroo

Nonprofit organizations providing legal services to low income New Yorkers rallied today at City Hall to call on the mayor to increase funding in the fiscal year 2024 budget. The Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, Neighborhood Defender Services, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and many other organizations providing civil and family legal services are seeking a $125 million from the city for criminal defense and at least a $300 million boost to civil legal services. They’re also looking for $80 million for family legal services, up from the current $50 million.

“By underfunding public defenders, Governor (Kathy) Hochul and Mayor Adams are tipping the scales of justice, one already weighted against the Black and Brown people disproportionately represented in our criminal and civil legal institutions” said Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.

Adams expressed his support for public defenders in budget testimony last month in Albany before the state Senate and Assembly. However, Adams’ $102.7 billion budget proposal did not increase any funding for public defenders. With funding remaining flat amid growing workloads and rising costs, advocates are worried that the quality of services will be impacted, further reinforcing bias in the legal system.

“I know what it’s like to look at your E-Zpass and see negative numbers,” said Eugene Touissant, a public defender with the Legal Aid Society. “I have to choose between starting a family or being a public defender. A lot of public defenders are choosing to leave their jobs for greener pastures.”

Last year, hundreds of public defenders left their jobs, many citing low pay. The Legal Aid Society, for example, lost 10% of its staff in 2022, which is about 200 staff members. The attrition rate had jumped 73% from 2021. Brooklyn Defender Services has also lost 24% of its staff. With constant attrition happening, public defenders who remain feel the pressure to take on heavy caseloads while delivering quality representation.

“It is mathematically in possible to produce our services efficiently and proficiently without additional fundings and increases in the budget,” said Pedro Vega, paralegal case handler at the Legal Aid Society. “So today, we call on you, Mayor Eric Adams, to grant additional funding, as well as increasing our budgets, so that we can better serve New Yorkers, your constituents, by ensuring that money which is allocated to increase salaries so that we can retain our most experienced employees, as well as attracting prospective hiring. Help us help you. Help New York seniors, help us to help the bar or the working poor, how to help young men the ways you can help.”

If granted, funding could increase salaries to combat attrition, help with hiring more prospective staff and ensure caseloads meet standards. 

“The incredible social workers, administrative staff, client advocates and lawyers of our collective family defense practices have been doing this essential work of keeping families together and keeping children out of the horrific foster system while saving money for 15 years, despite being funded at half of what the state has established as the caseload standard,” said Zainab Akbar, managing attorney of the Family Defense Practice at Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem. 

“New York City's families deserve better. New York City's Black and Brown communities deserve better, staff deserves better, this city would not function without the important work of our colleagues in criminal housing and immigration court,” Akbar said. “The work we do to provide representation to parents in family court is an essential service. There has never been a shortage of funding for the institutions that tear families apart in New York City. And it's time for the city to fully fund family defense.”