New York prosecutors are leaving in droves, citing pandemic-related burnout, low pay and two intersecting laws that have fundamentally changed the nature of their jobs.
“They just can’t do it anymore,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said in an interview Friday. “The money isn’t where it should be, and the work-life balance is just unmanageable.”
In the first three months of this year alone, 104 prosecutors left the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, 36 left the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and 44 left the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The nine Staten Island assistant district attorneys who left this year made up about 10 percent of that office’s prosecution staff. The Queens office told the New York City Council that it is on track this year to more than double quits from last year.
In the past fiscal year, Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys, which have about 500 prosecutors each, lost nearly a fifth of that workforce, a sharp increase from pre-2020 attrition averages. The Bronx is losing lawyers at a similar rate.
When the pandemic arrived in New York two years ago, it disrupted nearly all court proceedings. At the same time, two new state laws went into effect governing discovery – the sharing of all evidence, potential evidence, and other material related to the case.
The first law requires prosecutors to obtain and turn over hundreds of documents on numerous cases, a demanding task that may interfere with interviewing witnesses and otherwise preparing for court. A second law ties the delivery of these documents to the speed of the trial, creating pressure on deadlines for prosecutors to collect all the documents once the charges are laid. (This law is known as Kalief’s Law, after Kalief Browder, a teenager who committed suicide after being held on Rikers Island for three years without trial.)
For example, if a defendant blew into a breathalyzer, a defense attorney is entitled to six months of calibration reports on that device. Prosecutors also have an ongoing obligation to turn over a similar number of calibration reports filed after the defendant used the device.
The new laws are not the only reason for the departures. District attorneys say their city-funded budgets are too meager to allow them to pay prosecutors competitively. Despite the cost of living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the starting salary for prosecutors in those boroughs is $72,000. In the Bronx, it’s $75,121.
And, of course, the trend has coincided with the pandemic, which has prompted a record number of voluntary quits across all industries.
District attorneys say their employees are in trouble. Ms Clark said lawyers in her office, inundated with paperwork, could earn an extra $30,000 doing similar work for law firms, which could also allow them to work from home. “Why not do that? ” she says.
District attorneys replace former employees when they can, often trading experienced prosecutors for untested prosecutors.
State lawmakers rewrote the discovery law in 2019 after defense attorneys said prosecutors were withholding key evidence. The previous law required them to hand over certain evidence only after defense attorneys requested it in writing.
Because defendants — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color — were unaware of the full breadth of the evidence against them, they often accepted plea deals, rather than risk going to trial.
“The defense bar was basically completely in the dark about the very subject matter of the case,” said John P. Buza, a former attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who now practices defense law. as a partner at Konta, Georges & Buza, PC.
Public defenders have argued that without pressure on prosecutors to turn over exculpatory facts, their clients perpetually risk being wrongfully convicted.
The Discovery Act changed that. Prosecutors are now required to hand over 21 types of documents, including all electronically created or stored information relevant to a case.
Prosecutors must now scramble to obtain reams of documents – most of which are produced by the New York Police Department – and submit them to defense attorneys or risk a case being dismissed. Prosecutors often handle up to 100 cases simultaneously, and a large percentage of their cases now generate significant paperwork.
Ms Clark said the workload has put immense pressure on her assistants, who “feel their cases are going to be thrown out or I’m going to fire them”.
“When they have all this pressure on them, they prefer to go somewhere else where their quality of life is better,” she said. “They don’t have to work nights, weekends, vacations and do all this discovery.”
Caitlin Nolan, an 11-year veteran of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said in an interview Friday that she began looking for a new job last spring amid the challenges of working with low pay, hardships pandemic and frustration with new laws. She left the office in January.
“It was difficult to comply with because there was so much we had to produce,” she said, adding that having to provide information about witnesses – which would tell her of her concern that the defendants knew their identity before a trial – was particularly nervous. -shelving.
In recent testimony submitted to the New York City Council, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg illustrated the burden. He reported that before 2020, his office used around 32 terabytes of data storage. Today it uses 320 terabytes, a 900% increase over two years.
Tina Luongo, the lawyer 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 laws of discovery.
“High workloads, even high workloads for public defenders, lower morale. I’m not going to deny it,” she said, adding that she expects the state to provide local prosecutors with tens of millions of dollars for staffing in its next budget.
But, she said, “it cannot be and it must not be the case that the way you solve a caseload problem is to diminish the rights of a person charged with a crime.”
Mr Buza said his former colleagues are not saying the principles underpinning the new laws are unfair or wrong, but are simply overwhelmed by how the work as a whole has changed, with the need to search for documents for which they are legally responsible. although they may not know that such materials exist.
“People come into this job because they have an idea of what it means to be a prosecutor and go to court and try cases, and they end up downloading the discovery,” he said.
Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul proposed changes to discovery law that would prevent a judge from dismissing a case if a prosecutor was in “substantial compliance” with discovery obligations. Ms. Luongo said various counter-proposals were being negotiated.