Legal Aid Chief Attorney Says 18-B Groups Are Wrong To Criticize Legal Aid And Legal Aid Staff
MONDAY, JUNE 24, 2013

Continuing their efforts to stop the City's new indigent defense plan to allocate both non-conflict and conflict cases to The Legal Aid Society, 18-B groups told Crain's that Legal Aid lawyers have "less experience and heavier workloads, [and] are not as suited for complex, drawn-out cases." Some 18-B lawyers also implied that The Legal Aid Society is not independent from the City.

In response, Crain's reported that Steven Banks, The Legal Aid Society's Attorney-in-Chief, described such claims as "[no]nsense." He told Crain's that a 2009 State law limits the caseload an attorney can carry and that more than 40% of the Society's criminal defense lawyers have more than a decade of experience. Banks also said that City funding does not make Legal Aid subservient to City Hall, noting that The Legal Aid Society has brought high-profile cases against the City, including on stop-and-frisk.

In October 2012, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the City's plan to assign both non-conflict and conflict criminal cases to The Legal Aid Society. The Legal Aid Society had intervened in this case in 2010 because the litigation by various 18-B groups and local bar associations to block the City's plan prevented the City from allocating to the Society its full criminal defense caseload and the funding associated with it.

Crain's New York
Veteran lawyers blast city plan on legal aid
Attorneys for the indigent say mayor's proposal will phase them out.
By Chris Bragg
June 23, 2013

On a recent Monday morning, the Bronx criminal court system was living up to its sorry reputation: Some 300 people stood in the rain, trying to get through security and into the Bronx County Hall of Justice. Inside, potential jurors endured a 20-minute wait for jam-packed elevators.

A group of lawyers, however, seemed entirely at ease amid the chaos, darting to hearings through the marble halls and bantering with judges and bailiffs. They are on what's known as the 18-B panel: veteran attorneys who for decades have represented the indigent in multidefendant felony cases across New York City.

Yet this breed of courthouse veteran may soon become a rare species. Mayor Michael Bloom-berg's budget, which the City Council was expected to tweak and adopt in late June, shifts $14 million away from the 18-B panel toward legal-services nonprofits. At least some of the work will likely go to the Legal Aid Society, which generally handles less complicated cases.

The 18-B felony lawyers say that without the funding, their mom-and-pop firms can't continue as they have. "From a pure business perspective, this is a real issue," said Sam Braverman, a veteran Bronx defense attorney.

Local bar associations oppose the move, calling it an odd time to yank work from these courthouse fixtures: An April New York Times exposé chronicled staggering delays in Bronx criminal cases, and a massive probe of potentially wrongful convictions is underway in Brooklyn. But the Bloomberg administration says the change will improve the quality of representation while saving about $6 million annually.

The 18-B work is not lucrative by legal standards, paying $75 an hour, about an eighth of what some of the attorneys charge privately retained clients. The lawyers are not reimbursed for basic overhead costs and receive fees only when cases are finished. Some do it as a public service or as a side job, while others need the business to stay afloat.

"I'm 64 years old, and when I went to college in the '60s, there was a different perspective on defending the rights of the defenseless," said Joseph DeFelice, president of the Queens County Bar Association. "I do it because I just love doing it."

Changing course

Historically, New York felony cases with multiple defendants have been ceded by nonprofit legal-services providers because it would be a conflict of interest for one to represent multiple clients in a case. In 2010, however, the Bloomberg administration changed course, and the decision was upheld following a lengthy court battle. It enables money in the new budget to go to the nonprofits.

The 18-B attorneys want the City Council to block the plan, but usually the mayor accommodates only typical council priorities such as libraries and firehouses.

The attorneys say nonprofits' lawyers, with less experience and heavier workloads, are not as suited for complex, drawn-out cases. Some 18-B lawyers suspect the Bloomberg administration is motivated by a desire to deal with nonprofits that rely on city contracts. "The city already hires the police and the prosecutors," said Corey Sokoler, a Bronx defense attorney. "Now the city wants to get to pick the defense attorneys, too. It all crosses the line in the balance between the executive and judicial branches."

Nonsense, said Steven Banks, attorney in chief at Legal Aid. A 2009 state law limits the caseload an attorney can carry, he noted, and more than 40% of his organization's lawyers have more than a decade of experience. City funding does not make Legal Aid subservient to City Hall, he said, noting that his nonprofit has brought high-profile cases against the city, including on stop-and-frisk.

"We have investigators, social workers, paralegals and all kinds of other resources they don't," said Mr. Banks. "This is one of those situations in which it's both more cost-effective and a higher-quality service."

A Bloomberg spokesman commented that 18-B attorneys are likewise paid by the city. (They are also vetted by local bar associations.)

"The city itself is not a party in the criminal cases these attorneys handle," the spokesman said. "Our interest is in ensuring that high-quality legal representation is available to all indigent defendants."

Complex cases

In a May budget hearing held by the City Council, Mr. Bloomberg's chief policy adviser, John Feinblatt, argued that shifting cases from 18-B lawyers was not about saving money, but about improving indigent defense. He said institutional providers secure pleas on nonfelony charges in 80% of cases, versus 61% for 18-B attorneys—whose cases take 47% longer to conclude. (Just 3% of 18-B lawyers' cases and 1% of institutional providers' cases go to trial.) "Outcomes are what matter to people who have been accused of crimes," Mr. Feinblatt testified.

But the 18-B lawyers say they handle more complex cases that naturally take longer and are harder to plea down.

At the hearing, Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley noted that under the city's plan, only 50% of attorneys would have to be "felony certified," while all 18-B felony lawyers have that credential. "If somebody is charged with a crime, they are entitled to fair representation under the Constitution," Ms. Crowley told Mr. Feinblatt. "I don't believe that your [proposal] guarantees that."