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Queens Chronicle

COLUMNS End the pay disparity for ADAs, Legal Aid lawyers

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Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2018 10:30 am

Last month, I convened a Committee on the Justice System hearing to discuss fair pay and resources for prosecutors and public defenders, particularly the salary disparity that pulls experienced and talented attorneys away from our justice system and into other government agencies.

Our justice system depends on talented and experienced public defenders and prosecutors to ensure justice and fairness for both victims and defendants. However, district attorneys’ offices and public defenders are struggling to recruit and retain accomplished attorneys as a result of low pay, high cost-of-living and student loan debt.

The disparity with attorneys who work for the city’s Law Department or in other city agencies is vast and is present essentially from an attorney’s first day on the job. And the difference only grows across the years. Therefore, it is no surprise that city agencies often have better retention rates than our prosecutors and public defenders.

To highlight the significance of this issue, the city’s district attorneys and public defenders testified at our hearing together on the same panel. It was a remarkable moment: Two adversaries, known for arguing against each other in a courtroom, were unified in their belief that New York City needed to make pay parity happen — for the sake of our attorneys, and our justice system.

As we heard firsthand, the situation is dire across the city. Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark testified that 105 assistant district attorneys have left her office in the past year, and the average experience level of an ADA is only three years and eight months. Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon revealed that just 64 percent of ADAs in his office have five years or less of experience. Here in Queens, the District Attorney’s Office noted that retaining ADAs with five to 10 years of experience is a growing challenge.

Public defenders shared compelling and meaningful stories about how the wage gap impacts their livelihoods and our justice system. The president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys explained that continued attrition creates a significant gap in the number of defenders who are proficient in highly specialized fields of law. Attorneys from The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Bronx Defenders spoke about how their colleagues are struggling to support their families and make ends meet, while others have already left for more lucrative opportunities or lower caseloads elsewhere.

When top-tier, experienced talent leaves the criminal justice system, the quality of our justice system is impacted. What is happening now should concern us all, and spur the city to action. We need to provide prosecutors and public defenders with more resources that will close the wage gap and allow them to offer salaries that match their experience and skill level and are commensurate with the pay for attorneys at city agencies.

It is well past time for the city to make pay parity a reality. We have the resources, now we must have the will to make it a priority.

Rory Lancman is New York City Councilman for the 24th District, in central and northern Queens, Chairman of the Committee on the Justice System and a 2019 candidate for Queens District Attorney.

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