Cuts in City and State Funds for 2010 Will Further Impair Legal Aid's Ability to Provide a Constitutional Defense

Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, said that cuts in City and State funds for FY 2010, coming on top of cuts in the current fiscal year," will further impair our ability to provide a constitutional defense" for indigent defendants in the City. Banks told the New York Law Journal that even without the planned 2010 cuts, The Legal Aid Society's 435 criminal defense lawyers are handling on average 592 cases a year, which is 48 percent higher than the 400-case standards set by the Appellate Division, First Department.

On the civil side, the Civil Practice has suffered $3 million in cuts in the 2008-2009 State and City budgets and we are forced to turn away six out of every seven New Yorkers who seek our help. With the new proposed State cuts, we will have to turn away more families and individuals who need legal aid to get unemployment and disability benefits, flee from domestic violence, and prevent evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness which is at record levels in New York City."


New York Law Journal
Proposed Budget Includes Bump For Borough District Attorneys
By Daniel Wise
February 04, 2009

Despite a rapid deterioration in New York City's financial situation, its prosecutor's offices are slated for a net 4.6 percent increase in funding in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's preliminary budget, released last Friday.

City budget officials and district attorneys, however, said the increase to $261.5 million reflects either rises in fixed costs, such as rent or labor agreements, or revenues generated through prosecutions which the agencies are allowed to keep.

Mr. Bloomberg said that because of the nation's shrinking economy and woes on Wall Street, revenue projections for the 2010 fiscal year have contracted by $2 billion since November.

The $58.8 billion budget unveiled Friday would trim city expenditures by $1 billion through a variety of measures, including layoffs in some agencies, such as the Administration for Children's Services, where 608 workers would be let go.

The mayor also has proposed a sales tax increase and concessions by city workers to close a $4 billion budget gap. Overall, the proposed budget is $1.3 billion less than the current year's budget.

 The preliminary budget, following a pattern of prior years, cuts $8.7 million from the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense budget that was added by the City Council in negotiations last June.

The projected reduction of 13.6 percent in Legal Aid's funding to $72 million is likely to be mitigated by another council contribution. But last year, the council add-on was $2.2 million less than it had been a year earlier.

Other defender organizations, each of which are required to handle a set number of indigent cases, would receive an 8.3 percent increase to $43 million. The city attributed the increase to the addition of another organization, the Office of the Appellate Defender, making a total of eight.

Except for conflict cases, Legal Aid's contract requires it to defend all cases and appeals not handled by the defender groups.

While they are slated to receive an increase in the 2010 budget, the city's contribution to the district attorneys this year dropped by 2.7 percent from the 2008 fiscal year. The appropriation in the 2009 budget slipped by that amount despite a $4.2 million infusion by the council.

The mayor will tender his final executive budget in May, and negotiations with the council will follow before July 1.

The preliminary budget shows that the city's five district attorneys would receive $12 million more in city funding while the citywide special narcotics prosecution office would lose $500,000.

However, Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt said he expects the council to make up the cut to the narcotics prosecutor.

The biggest dollar gains to the prosecutors in the mayor's proposal are $5.8 million for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and $3.7 million for the Queens District Attorney's Office.

The increase in Manhattan reflects projected recoveries from fines, forfeitures and other financial penalties related to prosecutions. For instance, Mr. Feinblatt said, it has been projected that the office will receive funds during the year from the $239 million in payments imposed as part of sentences meted out to two top Tyco International executives who were convicted in 2005 of stealing $150 million from the company (NYLJ, Sept. 20, 2005).

The increase for the Queens office is dedicated to the rental of more space for staff, Mr. Feinblatt said. Periodically, new rental arrangements are made on a rotating basis as different offices' space needs increase, he said.

Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said he is "encouraged" that Mr. Bloomberg will allow his office to retain a portion of any savings it realizes "through cost savings in our day-to-day operations."

Legal Aid's Budget

Steven Banks, Legal Aid's attorney-in-chief, said cuts in city and state funds, coming on top of cuts in the present fiscal year, "will further impair our ability to provide a constitutional defense" for indigent defendants in the city.

Mr. Banks said that, even without the planned 2010 cuts, Legal Aid's 435 criminal defense lawyers are handling on average 592 cases a year - 48 percent higher than the 400-case standard set by the Appellate Division, First Department. The 400 figure represents a combination of felony and misdemeanors determined by a weighted formula.

Two years ago, Mr. Banks said, combined state and city funding for Legal Aid's criminal defense work was $96.9 million. In the current year, that funding shrunk by $3.5 million and in the 2010 fiscal year, that funding is slated to be cut another $11.2 million to $82.2 million, he said.

Should the council restore $8.6 million as it did last year, the cut over the two-year period would amount to 6.3 percent of its criminal defense budget, according to Mr. Bank's figures.

Civil Legal Aid

Mr. Banks also said Legal Aid and Legal Services NYC, the city's other major provider of civil legal services for the poor, sustained serious cuts in state and local funding in the current year budget totaling $2.2 million.

Governor David A. Paterson's 2010 budget, which would begin on April 1, 2009, would cut state funding by $7 million to $1 million (NYLJ, Jan. 21). In addition, Mr. Banks said, $9 million made available to the two programs under the Interest on Lawyer Account program could decline by 60 percent or more as interest rates continue to drop.

Andrew Scherer, executive director Legal Services NYC, said "the need for civil legal services in a declining economy is exploding as people lose jobs and face evictions, foreclosures and a host of related legal problems that require more funding for civil legal services rather than less."

The New York City Law Department's budget rises 2 percent to $123.4 million, according to the 2010 preliminary budget.

G. Foster Mills, the departments managing attorney, said the increase is slightly less because of additional funds received last month. But any boost in funding for either year is the result of raises required under a collective bargaining agreement, he said.

Mr. Mills added that city budget plans require the Law Department to shrink by 106 employees for the three fiscal years starting with the current year. With 1,285 full-time employees on June 30, 2008, the department is expected to shrink its staff by 8.2 percent by June 30, 2011, according to Mr. Mills' figures.

Some attorney positions could be lost, he said.

The preliminary budget sets aside $675 million to cover settlements and judgments, an increase of 5.8 percent over the amount allocated in this year's budget. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that 95 percent of the payments are made to cover tort claims.

Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children's Services, said her agency's budget calls for the layoffs of 608 workers and the loss of another 200 positions by attrition. The agency has just over 7,000 employees.

Ms. Stein said that the cutbacks have been designed "to the greatest extent possible" not to effect staffing for the agency's programs that impact upon Family Court.

The reductions are being structured, she added, "to ensure that our mandated core functions around child protection, prevention, foster care and child care will remain as strong as possible."

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the court system, said "it is our understanding that, if cuts are made, they will be made in such a way as to not have an impact upon Family Court operations."