Queens Defenders warn staffing shortages could impact lowest-income citizens’ right to legal counsel

Queens Defenders legal
Queens Defenders managing director Hettie Powell (QNS/File)

The leader of the Queens Defenders joined The Legal Aid Society and a number of other organizations that provide constitutionally and/or legally required defense and legal services representation across the city calling on Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council to prioritize increased funding or risk staffing shortages.

When Speaker Adrienne Adams shook the mayor’s hand on a new $101 billion spending plan on June 10, it included at least $60 million allocated to human and legal service providers in the budget for staffing and operational needs but it’s unclear how many defenders and civil legal service providers were exactly allocated.

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Incoming Attorney-In-Chief and CEO of The Legal Aid Society Twyla Carter. (The Legal Aid Society)

“Defender organizations play a critical role in ensuring our city’s justice system functions and the citizens of New York have equal access to high-quality legal representation and crime-reducing community-based programs,” Queens Defenders Managing Director Hettie Powell said. “We encourage the city to demonstrate to its lowest-income citizens that it values their right to legal counsel as much as an overfunded police force and their own attorney staff.”

The legal organizations said City Hall made an “extraordinary commitment” to addressing the recruitment and retention issues they faced in 2019 when the de Blasio administration agreed to supplement existing program revenue with a “parity supplement for the most junior attorneys at these organizations which brought them into parity with Corporation Counsel, attorneys who represent the city on legal matters.

The city’s announcement of funding to increase salaries for more junior staff in 2019 came with a commitment to continue to address the recruitment and retention issues for more senior staff over a “four-year full implementation plan.” However, the de Blasio administration never followed through on that commitment and the Center for Family Representation, which has represented more than 12,000 parents at risk of losing their children to the foster system and youth at risk of incarceration in Queens and Manhattan, was among the organizations that felt the impact of the city’s empty promise.

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Public defenders are warning that staffing shortages could tip the scales of justice toward one side at Queens Criminal Court and other courthouses in the five boroughs.(QNS/File)

“Defender organizations provide critical support for the most vulnerable among us,” Center for Family Representation Executive Director Michele Cortese said. “This chronic underfunding of our work not only impacts our staff but also has a disproportionately negative impact on low-income families and communities of color. If the city is to live up to its values of racial justice and supporting the most vulnerable New Yorkers, it must close the pay parity gap between city attorneys and public defenders, and ensure that all our organizations are sustainable.”

QNS reached out to the mayor’s office and is awaiting a response. Meanwhile, The Legal Aid Society, which currently employs around 2,000 people, has nearly 500 positions that need to be filled across the organization over the coming year, and other providers have identified similar vacancy rates. New York City’s rising cost of living, skyrocketing inflation and burden of student loans will only exacerbate the hiring and retention issues being faced.

“A budget reflects values and priorities, and if City Hall values the critical role public defenders and civil legal service providers play in New York City, any agreed-upon budget must include funding to fully compensate staff and meet the operational demands of these organizations,” said Twyla Carter, incoming attorney-in-chief and CEO of The Legal Aid Society. “Mayor Adams has talked a lot about how our justice system must fully function, emphasizing the needs of law enforcement, but we are part of that system too, and when the scales of justice tilts towards one side, people suffer, and those New Yorkers are often some of our most vulnerable neighbors.”