By David Brand
Each of the seven candidates for Queens District Attorney have endorsed the effort for pay parity among public defenders and prosecutors with the city’s Corporation Counsel amid advocacy by public defenders and district attorneys from all five boroughs.
The two sides, usually at odds in the courtroom, came together to advocate for increased funding in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget at a City Council Committee on the Justice System hearing on March 19.
“Pay parity for public defenders with lawyers at other city agencies is of paramount importance to this committee, as highlighted by our October 2018 hearing on the subject,” said Committee Chair Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens DA. “It is long past time for the city to pay the lawyers we fund to represent New Yorkers every day — especially those providing constitutionally or statutorily required work — at the same rate as the lawyers we hire for ourselves.”
The Legal Aid Society has asked the city to allocate $12 million to $15 million to public defender organizations in the 2020 budget. District attorneys and their representatives, including Queens Chief Assistant District Attorney John Ryan, also attended the hearing to ask for funding increases.
On March 20, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz tweeted her support for pay parity with the hashtag #PayParityNow.
“Until public defenders earn the same amount as prosecutors, our criminal justice system will continue to work against the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among us,” Katz said.
Former Judge Gregory Lasak, who worked as a Queens assistant district attorney before rising to the bench, said his position gave him perspective on the importance of pay parity.
“As a judge, I know better than anyone that although they stand on opposite sides of the courtroom and are tasked with different roles, assistant district attorneys and public defenders perform equally important parts of our criminal justice system and they should be compensated as such,” Lasak said.
Former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves said he “strongly” supports pay parity for ADAs and public defenders.
“In order to maintain a fair and equal criminal justice system the government must ensure that attorney advocates on both sides of the courtroom are fairly compensated,” Nieves told the Eagle.
“Pay parity will encourage more private attorneys to serve as public defenders,” he continued. “I know this because my wife serves as a public defender. The compensation provided to public defenders is far too low. The government must demonstrate that it values the advocacy of public defenders on behalf of their clients as equally as it values the service of prosecutors.”
Mina Malik, a former ADA in Queens and Brooklyn, said that pay parity is essential for criminal justice reform.
“In the conversation about criminal justice reform, we must highlight the importance of pay parity for our public defenders and prosecutors in New York City,” Malik said. “Those of us dedicated to doing the hard work of keeping our system fair and communities safe deserve just compensation.”
“Public defenders are particularly under-appreciated for the important role they play in the criminal justice system and are extremely necessary if we are to achieve equal justice in America,” Malik continued. “To retain driven and talented lawyers in these critical roles and to encourage them to continue their work in public service, we must ensure they are fairly paid.”
Attorney Betty Lugo, who served as a prosecutor in Nassau County before founding the first Latina-owned law firm in New York City, said she supports pay parity.
“I also support pay parity for women and men and fair and equal promotions,” Lugo said.
Public defender Tiffany Cabán did not respond to request for comment, but she did retweet Legal Aid Society statements in support of pay parity, including a quote from Politico article about pay parity on March 19.
“Public defenders say city shortchanges them for representing vulnerable New Yorkers,” said the tweet that Cabán shared. "It's time to correct this & to ensure that staff on the front line receive fair compensation to continue to represent NY's historically marginalized communities."
NYC Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said “fair compensation” for public defenders “is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”
“Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel,” Paolucci said.