New York Times
October 30, 1994
A New Round For Legal Aid and Giuliani
A month after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani crushed a short, furious walkout by Legal Aid Society lawyers, he has proposed budget cuts that the society says could force layoffs of 25 percent of its staff and set off costly, trickle-down chaos within the criminal-justice system.
But even as judges and some politicians joined Legal Aid’s doomsday view, a city official said that the society could well afford to lose some fat and still maintain its current caseload.
And from those two polar opposite starting points, negotiations over Legal Aid’s future as the city’s primary defender of the indigent are to resume this week between Katie Lapp, the city’s criminal justice coordinator, and Michael Iovenko, the president of Legal Aid.
To fulfill the requirements of its contract with Legal Aid, the city gave the lawyers formal notice last week that it would cancel the contract in 90 days. Ms. Lapp and Mr. Iovenko are to discuss Legal Aid’s new relationship with the city, under the constraints of a reduced budget.
Whatever the final layoffs and budget cuts, Mr. Iovenko and Ms. Lapp agreed that management-heavy Legal Aid would have to fundamentally change how it runs itself.
But another consensus seemed to be emerging as well: that at the end of a tumultuous month that saw the collapse of a strike by angry Legal Aid lawyers in the face of the Mayor’s threat of the organization’s early death, Legal Aid’s solid 28-year relationship with the city has been irrevocably weakened, as has its standing as a voice for the poor on a spectrum of issues.
On Tuesday, the Mayor announced in his package of cuts that he would shrink the city’s annual payments to Legal Aid’s criminal defense and appeals divisions by $12.5 million from a total of $79 million, a 16 percent reduction. Through cuts to other programs, Legal Aid’s services for people facing eviction would lose $760,000.
Legal Aid officials calculate that since four months of the fiscal year have already passed, the cut is equivalent to nearly $19 million from an annual budget.
Legal Aid lawyers handle about 226,000 cases a year, or about 60 percent of the overall caseload. Up to 158 of Legal Aid’s 632 criminal-defense lawyers may be laid off, its officials say.
As Legal Aid’s secretaries, supervisors and junior lawyers brace themselves for pink slips, which Legal Aid officials say could come by mid-November, some judges predict that the cuts will not only cost the city millions of dollars but also strain overcrowded courts and jails, forcing the early release of some dangerous prisoners whose cases have languished.
In short, said Judge Burton B. Roberts, the chief administrative judge of Bronx Supreme Court, “The impact on the criminal justice system would be devastating.”
And, judges and Legal Aid officials say, the cut is lopsided — budgets for the city’s district attorneys’ offices were untouched. At the same time, arrests are jumping, largely because of the Mayor’s insistence on a crackdown of “quality of life” crimes. For the first nine months of 1994, misdemeanor arrests rose 28.9 percent over the same period in 1993, about 17,000 cases more, according to Detective Lisa Guerriero, a Police Department spokeswoman.
But Ms. Lapp, the city’s criminal justice coordinator, defended the falling ax and said fears of huge layoffs and resulting mayhem were overblown. Legal Aid, she said, could keep its current caseload and not have to lose lawyers.
If Legal Aid could afford to give its managers a raise and offer union members a bonus, Ms. Lapp said, referring to events last summer and earlier this month, then certainly fat could be cut from its budget: “It’s consistent with what the Mayor said during the strike,” she said.
She also disputed the conventional wisdom that Legal Aid lawyers are desperately overworked. But should some layoffs be necessary, she said: “I am not confident that they need all the staff they have, to do the amount of work that is out there. The caseload carried by these attorneys is very, very low.”
In Manhattan and Brooklyn, a Legal Aid lawyer carries 40 pending cases on average — roughly 9 felonies and 31 misdemeanors. Bronx and Queens Legal Aid lawyers average 10 more cases each.
Robert M. Baum, the chief of Legal Aid’s criminal defense division, said that in some boroughs, Legal Aid lawyers had as many or fewer cases than private lawyers assigned by judges to represent the indigent.
But Mr. Baum said that respective caseloads did not tell the full story. He said studies had shown that Legal Aid lawyers moved their cases up to 40 days faster than private assigned lawyers, and so saved the city money in prison costs.
Speculation has run high that if Legal Aid must make the cuts it has forecast, 30,000 of its cases will be turned over to assigned lawyers, who the Mayor said this summer were costing the city far too much.
Patricia Bath, a spokeswoman for Legal Aid, said that transferring those cases to lawyers in the Assigned Counsel Plan would ultimately cost the city $31.6 million.
Another judge who said he was concerned about the proposed cuts, James A. Yates, Acting Supreme Court Justice, said that something was being lost in all the number-crunching: the value placed on the quality of representation that Legal Aid offers. While not discrediting the lawyers in the Assigned Counsel Plan, who are mostly solo practitioners, Judge Yates said that Legal Aid provided clients with investigative services, interpreters, social-service liaisons, an appeals division and class-action litigation, as well as a hierarchy that trains new lawyers.
And while those young lawyers are indeed inexperienced, they are essential to the vaunted idealism of Legal Aid, said Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, which represents nearly 1,000 staff lawyers.
“There’s a lot to be said for the new blood — they’re the most effervescent and that’s what they bring to clients,” he said. They will be among the first to be laid off.
Ms. Bath said that the 1994 class of 64 Legal Aid fledglings had been plucked from about 2,400 applicants. Forty percent are minority lawyers and 60 percent are women.
And recruiting at law schools for future classes has stopped. “We have nothing to offer them,” said Ms. Bath.