New York City prosecutors are leaving en masse, citing pandemic burnout, low salaries and two intersecting laws that have fundamentally changed the nature of their jobs.
“They just can’t do it anymore,” Darcel Clark, the Bronx district attorney, said in a Friday interview. “The money is not where it should be, and the work-life balance is just unmanageable.”
In the first three months of this year alone, 104 prosecutors have left the Bronx district attorney’s office, 36 have left Brooklyn’s and 44 Manhattan’s. The nine Staten Island assistant district attorneys who left this year represented about 10 percent of that office’s prosecutors. The Queens office told the New York City Council it was on track this year to more than double last year’s layoffs.
In the past fiscal year, the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys, which each have about 500 prosecutors, lost nearly a fifth of that workforce, up sharply from their pre-2020 turnover rate. The Bronx is firing attorneys at a similar rate.
When the pandemic arrived in New York two years ago, it disrupted almost all legal proceedings. At the same time, two new state laws governing the discovery came into effect: the sharing of all evidence, potential evidence, and other case-related material.
The first law requires prosecutors to obtain and hand over hundreds of documents in many cases demanding task that may hinder the hearing of witnesses and otherwise preparing for court. A second law will link the transfer of that material to the rapid trial clock, putting pressure on prosecutors to collect all the material once charges are filed. (That law is known as Caliph’s Law, named after Caliph Browder, a teenager who committed suicide after being held without trial on Rikers Island for three years.)
For example, if a defendant blew into a breath analysis device, a lawyer is entitled to six months’ worth of calibration reports on that device. Prosecutors also have an ongoing obligation to hand over a similar number of calibration reports filed after the accused uses the device.
The new laws are not the only reason for departure. District attorneys say their city-funded budgets are too meager to pay prosecutors competitively. Despite the cost of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, starting salaries for prosecutors in those boroughs are $72,000. In the Bronx it is $75,121.
And, of course, the trend has coincided with the pandemic, which has resulted in record numbers of voluntary layoffs across all sectors.
Prosecutors say their employees are having a hard time. Ms. Clark said her firm’s attorneys, inundated with paperwork, could earn $30,000 more by performing similar duties for law firms, which would also allow them to work from home. “Why wouldn’t you?” she said.
The prosecutors replace their former employees when they can, often trading experienced prosecutors for untested ones.
State lawmakers rewrote the discovery law in 2019 after defense attorneys said prosecutors withheld important evidence. The previous law required them to hand over certain pieces of evidence only after their lawyers had requested it in writing.
Because defendants — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color — were unaware of the full scope of the evidence against them, they often accepted plea deals rather than risk going to court.
“The defense desk was actually completely in the dark about what the case was actually about,” said John P. Buza, a former district attorney in the Manhattan district attorney’s office who now practices defense law as a partner at Konta. , Georges & Buza, PC.
The public defenders argued that without pressure on prosecutors to hand over exculpatory facts, their clients were constantly at risk of wrongful conviction.
The Discovery Act changed that. Prosecutors are now required to hand over 21 types of material, including any electronically created or stored information relevant to a case.
Prosecutors must now rush to get hold of piles of paperwork — much of it produced by the New York Police Department — and submit them to defense attorneys or risk a case being thrown out. Prosecutors often handle as many as 100 cases at a time, and a large percentage of their cases now generate a lot of paperwork.
Ms Clark said the workload had put enormous pressure on her assistants, who “feel their cases are going to be shelved or I’m going to fire them.”
“When they have all this pressure on them, they’d rather go somewhere else where their quality of life is better,” she said. “They don’t have to work nights, weekends, holidays and make all these discoveries†
Caitlin Nolan, an 11-year veteran of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, said in an interview Friday that she was looking for a new job last spring amid the challenges of working on a low salary, the daily difficulties of the pandemic and frustration with the new laws. She left the office in January.
“It was difficult to comply with this because there was so much we had to produce,” she said, adding that it was particularly audacious to provide information about witnesses — who would express her concern about defendants knowing their identities prior to trial. a process – stretching.
In a recent testimony filed with the New York City Council, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg illustrated the charge. He reported that his office was using about 32 terabytes of data storage before 2020. Today it uses 320 terabytes, an increase of 900 percent in two years.
Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, said she agreed that prosecutors — and public defenders — needed more money for competitive salaries, especially in light of the discovery laws.
“High workload, even high workload for public defenders, reduces morale. I’m not going to deny that,” she said, adding that she expected the state to give local prosecutors tens of millions of dollars for personnel in the upcoming budget.
But, she said, “It can’t be and it shouldn’t be that the way you solve a workload problem is to reduce the rights of someone accused of a crime.”
Mr Buza said his former colleagues are not saying that the principles underlying the new laws are unjust or misleading, but are simply overwhelmed by the way the job has changed in general, with the need to track down documents for which they are legally responsible – even if they may not know such materials exist.
†People go on the track because they have an idea of what it means to be a prosecutor and go to court and try cases, and in the end they just upload discoveries,” he said.
Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul proposed changes to the discovery law that would prevent a judge from dropping a case if a prosecutor had “substantial compliance” with discovery obligations. Ms Luongo said several counter-proposals are under negotiation.