County Prosecutors Seek To Stem Staffing Crisis
ALBANY — New York’s county prosecutors say they are struggling to stem a “brain drain crisis” as talented lawyers leave for better pay and to escape frustrations brought on by paperwork mandates enacted by the state Legislature.
As Gov. Kathy Hochul works on a proposed state budget, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York is making its case that the offices of county prosecutors need a significant funding boost due to changes in the discovery law enacted by the Legislature in 2019.
The prosecutors say the mandates — relating to the sharing of documents and files with defense attorneys — have overwhelmed their staffers to the point that they are driving some lawyers to leave their employment with district attorneys.
“The changes to discovery are a major contributing factor” in the recruitment and retention challenges, said Anthony Jordan, the president of the District Attorneys Association and the district attorney of Washington County.
The added duties brought on by the discovery changes include reviewing and redacting medical records, reviewing video footage to blur out license plates and faces of bystanders and hiring and training additional staff to prepare the evidence.
Jim Quinn, former executive district attorney for the Queens district attorney’s office, said assistant district attorneys are often enticed to become prosecutors because they want to prosecute defendants, but end up being used as “paralegals” due to the discovery requirements and deadlines associated with the mandates to furnish evidence to defense counsel.
“It’s just impossible to comply with the discovery statutes within the timeframe and so you wind up triaging cases,” said Quinn, who spent 42 years working as a prosecutor.
“You’re required to provide discovery on those cases when you know they’re not going to go to trial” and are aiming for a plea deal, he said. “The speedy trial clock is running against you. It’s extremely demoralizing.”
The current state budget provided $40 million statewide to help prosecutors comply with the revised discovery rules. The district attorneys are seeking $100 million from the coming spending plan.
A separate spigot of money, designed to help prosecutors deal with repeat and violent offenders, provided county prosecutor offices with $12.5 million last year, far below the $22.7 million sum offered 20 years earlier. The district attorneys are now asking the governor for $18 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Jordan said retention of assistant district attorneys is also challenging because state government and private law firms have salaries that exceed what counties pay to lawyers.
He stressed his group is not seeking to reverse all of the changes that were made with the new discovery rules. “But it’s something we need to find a way to address,” he said. “We ought to be looking at how are we actually accomplishing the mission and the goal of those changes.”
The prosecutors are also hoping lawmakers and Hochul will reopen the discussion on controversial changes to the bail law that restricted the ability of judges to remand defendants to jail if they are deemed to pose a danger to communities.
“I don’t see how people can look at the current environment and not say we have to do something,” Jordan said. “It seems obvious that people don’t feel secure in their communities in many places. There has to be discussion on all of the different initiatives that took place that are contributing to the sense of alarm — and the alarm is not misplaced.”
With the expansion this year of the Red Flag Law allowing the seizure of firearms from individuals posing a danger to themselves or others, the association is requesting $6 million go to prosecutors, citing the additional work from representing police officers applying for Extreme Risk Protection Orders from judges.
The new law has increased duties involving preparation of documents, interviews of witnesses and other steps necessary to convince a judge to issue such an order, according to the association.
The state’s criminal justice laws became a hot button issue in the race for governor that concluded with Hochul edging her GOP challenger, Rep. Lee Zeldin, by less than 300,000 votes.
While Hochul has yet to spell out her criminal justice agenda, she is expected to highlight it when she releases the proposed budget in January.
Progressive lawmakers from downstate are expected to push for more laws aimed at reducing the state prison population.