As the five District Attorney’s Offices in New York City are set to give their entry-level prosecutors a pay bump with the help of millions in increased spending by the city government, the Legal Aid Society, which is contracted by the city for its services, says it’s time to boost public defenders’ paychecks.
City lawmakers signed off on a $15.3 million spending increase to the DA’s Offices in the coming fiscal year, of which about $5.5 million was earmarked for pay increases for entry-level prosecutors.
The DAs have for the past several budget cycles raised concerns that the salaries for newly minted attorneys have fallen behind those offered at city agencies like the Corporation Counsel’s Office, where salaries start at $68,494.
At the DA’s Offices, salaries range from $60,000 to about $64,000, and spokespersons from the offices said it has yet to be determined how much more their first-year prosecutors will receive from the infusion of additional city funding.
As for Legal Aid, which receives funding from the city through different contracts, recent graduates working for the legal service provider straight out of law school and who are awaiting their bar exam results are paid $53,582; upon passage of the bar, their pay jumps to $62,730.
For new lawyers saddled with law school debt who are living and working in one of the most expensive cities in the country, the pay is not enough to keep them from leaving public service law, said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge for the criminal defense practice at Legal Aid.
Legal Aid receives a $108 million appropriation from the city for indigent legal defense, and Luongo said the appropriation has remained flat for the last six fiscal years.
Luongo said she submitted a request for $3 million to address the pay parity issue in the coming fiscal year, but said that the extra money wasn’t included in the final version of the budget.
Luongo noted that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did sign off on $20 million more to Legal Aid and other legal service providers in the city to handle an influx of homicide cases that are being shifted away from 18-b panels to institutional providers at the start of next year, but she said that appropriation will be needed to take on the increased workload.
As it stands now, Luongo said, some of her staff are having to take on food service and tutoring jobs to make ends meet—a situation that she said is not ideal for attracting and retaining talent.
“It’s going to force people to either not do public interest work or do it and leave,” she said.
According to a city budget document, city appropriations to Legal Aid for trial-level defense has averaged about $89 million for the last several fiscal years, while its annual caseload has fallen from more than 224,200 in its 2014-15 fiscal year to about 142,400 in the 2017-17 fiscal year.
“The Legal Aid Society is a critical partner to the City in providing affordable and fair legal representation for our most vulnerable communities,” said de Blasio administration spokesman Raul Contreras in an email. “We will continue providing support for the vital work they perform for New Yorkers.”
City Councilman Rory Lancman, who chairs the council’s Justice System Committee, said in a written statement that he plans to hold a hearing on fair pay for practitioners across the criminal justice system this fall.
“Our justice system depends on talented and experienced public defenders to advocate on behalf of indigent New Yorkers,” Lancman said. “We are grateful for the extraordinary work public defenders do every day, and as such, it is critical that they are compensated fairly, and in line with what the city pays its own employees.”