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New York court-appointed attorneys fight for first raise in 15 years


Court-appointed attorneys representing poor defendants in New York are pushing for their first raise in 15 years as their caseloads are set to increase because of new criminal justice reforms.

Rates for these private, court-assigned attorneys were fixed at $75 an hour for felonies or children defendants and $60 an hour for misdemeanors in 2004.

Total pay for so-called “18B” lawyers – named after the law requiring legal representation for those who can’t afford to hire their own attorneys – is also capped at $4,400 per case.

“This is as hard a job as there is in the system because it’s emotionally draining…To do this work is a choice,” said attorney Brian Zimmerman, the vice president of the Assigned Counsel Association of New York State. “Its sad and hard to think that people don’t want to compensate attorneys who are holding people’s hands through difficult, dark times. It’s not valued the way it should be.”

Attorneys like Zimmerman have only gotten two raises for court-appointed work in the last 32 years. Meanwhile, court-assigned attorneys in federal courts have seen rates rise 12 times since 2004, up to $148 an hour in February.

“When the rates stay stagnant, it becomes an economic disincentive to become a lawyer to do the work for the poor and the youth,” Zimmerman said.

Caseloads increase when fewer attorneys want to do this work.

When a new state law raising the age of criminal responsibility is fully implemented next month, the problem will only get worse.

“We’re already in crisis mode, if they don’t raise the rates and the caseloads increase, it’ll have a devastating effect,” said attorney Sarah Tirgary, president of the Assigned Counsel Association of New York State. “Cases will be delayed, attorneys are going to be overflowing with cases, it’s already having a negative impact on the attorneys’ health.”

New York’s “Raise the Age” legislation amended laws that automatically processed 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, diverting most juvenile cases to Family Court and judges with access to social services. The law went into effect for 16-year-olds in October and starting next month, 17-year-olds will also be covered by the changes, too.

Attorneys say the recommended caseload is 70 but many already juggle more than that. Raising the age will increase caseloads even more.

“With criminal justice reforms we need to make sure we have competent representation for defendants otherwise they don’t work,” said state Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), who sponsored legislation that would raise rates. “Often they are presented with the most challenging cases… We don’t want to give the great attorneys doing this work a reason to leave because there’s more lucrative employment elsewhere.”

The legislation, introduced in the state Senate and Assembly this year, would double rates for New York’s court-appointed attorneys, to $150 an hour for felonies or children defendants and $120 an hour for misdemeanors. Compensation would also be subject to an annual “cost of living increase” calculated by the rate of inflation.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), a sponsor of the legislation, said that increasing rates has been difficult because 18B puts the onus on individual counties to pay for court-appointed attorneys. He said the measure would likely have to be part of next year’s budget.

“We want people involved in cases that are experienced attorneys wanting to represent the indigent population,” Lentol said.

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore called on Gov. Cuomo and state legislative leaders to increase the rate amid a “growing shortage of qualified attorneys” in February.

Spokesmen for Assembly Majority Leader Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said they would review the legislation with their members.

A rep for Cuomo said he wouldn’t comment on proposed legislation.