Legal Aid Society Remains Primary Provider of Indigent Defense Services in New York City; City Announces Criminal Trial Caseload Numbers; Awards Staten Island to Legal Aid

The City's Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt yesterday announced the distribution of criminal trial caseload numbers and The Legal Aid Society will continue to be the primary provider of indigent defense services in New York City. He also announced that the Society has been designated as the criminal defense provider for Staten Island for the first time since the 1990s and will continue to be the sole institutional provider of parole revocation defense services.

The Society currently handles 230,000 criminal defense cases each year and 7,000 parole cases. Under the new contract, the Society will handle 210,000 primary criminal defense cases and 7,000 parole cases. However, the City has said that the Society will be assigned "a significant number" of conflict cases if the City is permitted to assign such cases. Litigation is currently pending to block the City's plan to assign conflict cases to institutional providers. This week, The Legal Aid Society moved to intervene in that litigation, represented by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys is also participating in the litigation with the Society.

In a story that appears in the New York Law Journal today, Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief, warned that, with the City only permitted to allocate primary cases, Legal Aid will be left "with insufficient funding to maintain its operations and staffing." The process "needs to be completed immediate[ly]," Mr. Banks said, so that Legal Aid can "be properly funded" and "avert the staffing reductions and client service cutbacks that the Society will otherwise have to implement immediately."

The New York Law Journal
City Alters Distribution of Cases for Indigent Criminal Defendants
By Daniel Wise
December 03, 2010

The distribution of indigent criminal defense cases among the groups that serve as primary providers in New York City has been significantly altered by the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.

Based on figures the office has released to the groups, the Legal Aid Society will be responsible for 20,000 fewer cases, and five of the remaining six groups will receive 54,000 more.

The one group that lost out in the bidding for renewal contracts is Staten Island Defense Services, which for the past 14 years has been the primary defender of indigent cases in Richmond County.

The Staten Island group's annual caseload of roughly 9,000 will be folded into the Legal Aid contract, Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt said in an interview.

Legal Aid, however, will likely receive an influx of cases that the defender groups are unable to handle due to conflicts.

Mr. Feinblatt said he could not comment on the decision not to award a contract to Staten Island Defenders, saying the decision was "the result of [a] competitive bidding process."

Paul A. Battiste, a founder of the Staten Island group, said after having provided quality services for more than 13 years, "we put in a proposal and were hopeful we would received a renewal, but we didn't."

Mr. Feinblatt said that while the distribution of primary cases has been settled, no decision has been made as to the amount of funding the groups will receive. He said his office plans to complete the contracts as soon as possible but could not commit to a deadline. Five of the six groups have had their existing contracts extended until June 30, 2011.

The groups that serve as primary providers are responsible for picking up the contracted number of cases at arraignment shifts they are assigned to cover. The total number of primary cases to be handled in the next round of contracts is 329,000, an increase of 8 percent above the number handled under existing contracts.

The flashpoint in this year's bidding process, however, has been the roughly 44,000 conflict cases that have up to now been handled by 1,100 private practitioners in New York City at an annual cost of $47.8 million. The private lawyers are paid from municipal funds under Article 18-B of the County Law.

In February, the city put out for bid the contracts that had been awarded to the seven defender groups since 2002 and extended several times since then. The requests for the first time solicited proposals to handle conflict cases (NYLJ, Feb. 10).

In June, five county bar associations filed a suit, New York County Lawyers' Association v. Bloomberg, 107216/10, to block the city from soliciting bids from defense groups to handle conflict cases (NYLJ, June 4). Oral argument before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Anil Singh is scheduled for Dec. 15.

Pending Justice Singh's ruling on the merits of the case, the city has agreed not to award contracts for conflict cases, but it remains free to issue contracts for primary cases.

Conflict Cases for Legal Aid

Legal Aid, however, is in line to receive at least some of the conflict cases that had been assigned to private lawyers. In a brief filed on Monday supporting its application to intervene in the 18-B litigation, Legal Aid disclosed that the city has indicated an intent to assign to it a "significant number" of conflict cases.

In asking to intervene, the Legal Aid brief contended that the organization is being harmed by the delay in awarding conflict contracts.

With the city only permitted to allocate primary cases, Steven Banks, Legal Aid's attorney-in-chief, warned in an affirmation, Legal Aid will be left "with insufficient funding to maintain its operations and staffing."

The process "needs to be completed immediate[ly]," Mr. Banks said, so that Legal Aid can "be properly funded" and "avert the staffing reductions and client service cutbacks that the Society will otherwise have to implement immediately."

According to Mr. Feinblatt, Legal Aid, which handled about 230,000 cases in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, will be required to handle 210,000 cases under its new contract.

Read in conjunction with Mr. Feinblatt’s disclosure on Legal Aid’s caseload, the clear thrust of Mr. Banks’ comments is that the agency needs to receive 20,000 conflict cases to make up for the deficit without hemorrhaging either staff or services.

Robin Steinberg, the executive director of the Bronx Defenders, said she has had no discussions with the city about conflict cases. Similarly, Lisa Schreibersdorf, the executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said she did not expect any conflict cases.

Both groups' caseloads will more than double when the new contracts are awarded. The Bronx Defenders' caseload will rise to 28,000 from 12,500 and Brooklyn Defender Services to 38,000 from 18,000.

Ms. Schreibersdorf said the Brooklyn group will be able to bring on board attorneys with expertise in immigration and other collateral consequences of convictions. Ms. Steinberg said her group is pleased to be able to offer its services to an "even greater number of people from this desperately underserved community."

Caseload to Nearly Triple

Another big winner in the competition for city contracts is Neighborhood Defender Services, which has never been funded through the mayor's executive budget. For the first time, Mr. Feinblatt said, a contract will be offered to the group, which serves Harlem and most of the rest of northern Manhattan and has been funded after annual negotiations between the City Council and the mayor.

Under the new contract, funding for the neighborhood defenders will increase to $4.8 million a year from $3 million and the number of cases it will be responsible for handling will expand to 10,000 from 3,500 a year.

The new contract also will relieve the Legal Aid Society of the open-ended obligation to handle 88 percent of cases calendared on its arraignment shifts, Mr. Feinblatt said. The change will put Legal Aid on the same footing as the other providers who will all be required to handle a set number of cases per year.

Mr. Banks said the change is "an important step to get us out from under a literally limitless obligation to accept cases at a set price which resulted in excessive caseloads for our staff." Queens Law Associates will see its caseload increase to 25,000 from 15,000, and New York County Defender Services to take on 18,000 cases from 16,000.

Mr. Battiste, of the Staten Island defender group, said his chief concern is that there be "as seamless a transition as possible with Legal Aid" to avoid disruption of client services.

He also said he has begun contacting other defender groups, urging them to hire his 15 lawyers and 13 support staff who will be losing their jobs.

"The staff is very experienced, capable, well trained and familiar with processes in Staten Island," he said.

The heads of two of the groups that received the largest increase in primary cases both said they do not expect to receive conflict cases.