New York Law Journal: City Broadens Its Evaluation of Indigent Criminal Defense

New York City officials are testing a number of methods to assess the quality of indigent criminal defense, which, they say, is part of a broader attempt to make for a fairer criminal justice system.

Though the city now tracks conviction rates, incarceration rates, case duration, charge reduction and disposition at arraignments, officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice told New York City Council members on Monday that they were developing a “more robust evaluation system to ensure effectiveness of indigent defense provision.”

The broader evaluation would apply to both institutional providers such as the Legal Aid Society, Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Defender Services, as well as assigned 18-B counsel. After a lengthy legal fight, de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, significantly cut the number of cases assigned to individual 18-B attorneys where a conflict existed with the primary defense organization and reassigned them to the institutional providers.

According to a city council briefing paper, discussions between city lawmakers and mayoral officials on indigent defense evaluations beyond cost per case go back several years to the Bloomberg administration.

Kara Dansky, special advisor in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told the council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services and Committee on Public Safety that while gauging the caliber of indigent defense is difficult, the administration would incorporate the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s 10 standards of effective indigent defense. Those standards analyze responsiveness to clients, attorney qualifications, workloads and resources in comparison to prosecutors.

Dansky said the office would also look to recent evaluations in North Carolina and Texas, which examined matters like attorney access, case outcomes and pretrial release. The North Carolina study included a client satisfaction survey and the Texas study interviewed judges for feedback on attorney performance. Dansky said both things could be used as part of the city’s evaluations.

The de Blasio administration “will not only strive to bring more sophisticated methods to our measurement of effectiveness in this arena,” said Dansky, “but will also pursue reforms that reduce unnecessary arrests, reduce case processing times and divert people to programs and services in cases where those interventions are appropriate.”

Sarah Solon, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s criminal justice office, said in an interview that there was no timeline to implement the broader evaluation method.

Other speakers at the hearing Monday included William Leahy, director of New York state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services and Paulette Brown, president-elect of the American Bar Association.

Protesters briefly interrupted the hearing, denouncing the “broken windows” style of policing being used in the city.

Representatives for a number of the city’s institutional providers said they were open to a broader report card, noting that a defense attorney’s role had changed from fighting a particular case to addressing collateral consequences and underlying problems.

Justine Olderman, managing director of the Bronx Defenders, said at the hearing that she welcomed evaluations that included “our ability to address the causes and consequences of criminal justice involvement.”

Lisa Schreibersdorf, the founder of Brooklyn Defender Services and its current executive director, said standards in indigent defense were used “as a sword and a shield.”

For her colleagues outside the city handling indigent defense with limited funding, Schreibersdorf said the standards were used to say the organizations were falling short.

But she said that in the city, there are caseload caps and an administration and city council “that really cares about us.”

“If we have standards, we can use them affirmatively to show what we want to do, or what we should be doing … so I welcome them, only because it’s New York City,” she said.

Rory Lancman, D-Queens, chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, said council members would be advocating in the future for more “wraparound services” to give individuals representation on a wider range of legal issues, not just the accused crimes.

But he pressed the organizations on whether “reinventing the wheel” was necessary when a number of organizations already offered civil legal services.

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Practice, noted that her organization did have a civil practice but most groups did not.

She said that until providers can guarantee civil legal services, “the better thing to do is mandate it for us, in our contracts.”

By Andrew Keshner

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