By David Brand
In this case, prosecutors and public defenders can agree: the pay is too low.
The City Council’s Committee on the Justice System met Thursday for a hearing to consider pay parity for assistant district attorneys (ADAs) and public defenders relative to other government attorneys.
Salaries for ADAs and public defenders typically trail attorneys in other city agencies, the committee noted. Prosecutors and defenders who testified agreed with that assessment.
“To ensure justice and fairness without fear or favor, prosecutors and indigent defense agencies must be able to recruit and retain the brightest legal minds,” said Manhattan District Attorney Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman-Agnifilo in written testimony presented to the committee. “A low starting salary combined with the twin burdens of tremendous law school debt and the cost of living in New York City make it extremely challenging for our offices to recruit recent law school graduates in the competitive legal labor market
In a statement, the Legal Aid Society said public defender salaries pale in comparison to other attorneys and discourage many attorneys from pursuing or maintaining their careers in public service.
“Every day, our dedicated staff works tirelessly in courts and in communities to defend New York’s most vulnerable,” Legal Aid said. “However, for too long, City Hall and the NYS Office of Court Administration (OCA) have underappreciated and undervalued this zealous commitment by refusing to acknowledge the growing disparity in compensation between our staff, Corporation Counsel, and OCA court attorneys.”
The City Council increased funding for the city’s five district attorney’s offices by $15 million in the 2019 fiscal year budget with about $5 million devoted to prosecutor pay raises. Public defenders have not received a similar pay increase.
A review of New York City public defender salaries on the website Glassdoor.com presents salaries that are relatively low for attorneys. According to the site, Brooklyn Defender Services pays staff attorneys an average annual salary of $65,619 based on four listed salaries, Legal Aid pays staff attorneys an annual salary of $67,075 based on 52 listed salaries and New York Legal Assistance Group pays staff attorneys an annual salary of $61,000 based on 17 listed salaries.
Earlier this year, a AccessLex/Gallup survey found that 60 percent of law school graduates borrowed more than $100,000 in loans for law school between 2010 and 2017. The survey was reported by Quartz.
In testimony before the committee, Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Practice pointed out specific salary disparities.
New York City Corporate Counsel attorneys with 10 years of experience earn an annual salary of roughly $108,000 while public defenders with 10 years of experience earn about $90,000.
Office of Court Administration court attorneys with three years of experience earn a salary of $98,824, while public defenders with three years of experience earn less than $65,000.
Luongo said public defenders fail to keep up with law school debt and the cost of living in New York City. Nearly 50 percent of Legal Aid attorneys leave the practice by their tenth year, Luongo said.
In a statement, Legal Aid said the pay disparity “speaks volumes about how the system views our clients.”
“This inequity not only deprives our staff of a fair compensation, but sends a broader message that if you dedicate your life to social justice, racial equity, and representing historically disenfranchised communities of color, your contributions are worth less than the staff employed by the City of New York and others,” Legal Aid said.
During the hearing, Committee on the Justice System Chair Rory Lancman acknowledged the arguments made by the prosecutors and public defenders.
“[E]xperienced, savvy, committed assistant district attorneys are necessary to faithfully exercise their immense discretion and ethical obligations,” Lancman said. “Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult for public defender’s and prosecutor’s offices to retain talented and experienced public service attorneys to perform these critical responsibilities.”
Lancman introduced a bill that would establish a task force to review pay parity, but Legal Aid said the bill does not go far enough.
“Establishing a task force is wrongheaded because immediate action is needed,” Legal Aid said in a statement. “Our attorneys and staff simply cannot afford to live in today’s New York, and the city continues to suffer as a result of this attrition. We need City Hall and others to right this ship now and pay our staff in the same manner that they pay theirs.”