February 16, 2000
New York Law Journal
By Fax: 212.696.4287
Bronx Defenders promotes the myth that its “holistic advocacy” for indigent criminal defendants transcends an allegedly “limited, staid model of intervention” of The Legal Aid Society, New York City’s primary defender (NYLJ, 1-28-00).
For 30 years, however, unionized Legal Aid Society attorneys and support staff have fought for and won the kinds of practice for which Bronx Defenders now seeks to take credit, including collaborative and creative advocacy, drug rehabilitation, pre- and post-pleading memorandums, alternatives to incarceration and job placement.
Unlike Bronx Defenders, however, which the City lavishly funds to handle only 12,500 cases in a “private school” environment, Society staff represents an unlimited number of clients—currently more than 200,000 in New York City each year—with far lower per-case “public school” funding.
This gross discrepancy reflects the Giuliani administration’s deliberate retaliation against the Society and its unions for a brief 1994 strike, since which Legal Aid’s City funding has been slashed from $79 to $52 million. As a result, reported the Indigent Oversight Panel of the Appellate Division, First Department in 1998, the Society “is handling too many cases with too little staff and too little support. . . . These conditions have, in large measure, been created by the City’s decision to contract with [Bronx Defenders and six other Giuliani defense] organizations.”
Meanwhile, warm and fuzzy feelings at Bronx Defenders and its sibling contractors give their nonunion staff neither power over legal practice, nor protection against employer favoritism, arbitrary discipline and firing.
In contrast, collective bargaining at The Legal Aid Society provides unionized lawyers and support staff with the means to defend and improve workload limits, continuity (the same lawyer throughout a case), a fair and uniform pay scale, hiring and promotion decisions, affirmative action, office space, health and safety, and many other gains directly related to high-quality representation.
No amount of public relations hype can alter the collaboration of Bronx Defenders management with Giuliani’s assault on indigent criminal defense. By that complicity, Bronx Defenders has chosen to be part of the problem—not its solution.
Michael Z. Letwin, Esq., President
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325