Why Hundreds of New York City Attorneys Are Quitting Their Jobs
New York City prosecutors are leaving in droves, citing pandemic burnout, low salaries and two overlapping laws that have fundamentally changed the nature of their work.
“You 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 just isn’t manageable.”
This year alone, 36 have left the Brooklyn and 44 Manhattan attorneys’ offices. At least 28 have left the Bronx, and the nine Staten Island assistant prosecutors who left this year represented about 10 percent of that office’s prosecutors. The Queens office told the New York City Council that this year it is on track to more than double last year’s resignations.
Over the past year, the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys, which each have about 500 prosecutors, lost nearly a fifth of that workforce, a sharp increase from pre-2020 turnover averages. The Bronx is losing attorneys at a similar rate, totaling 104 since July.
Prosecutors replace their former staff when they can, often exchanging experienced prosecutors for unvetted ones.
When the pandemic hit New York two years ago, it disrupted almost all court proceedings. At the same time, two new state laws that govern discovery — the sharing of all evidence, potential evidence and other case-related materials — went into effect. Prosecutors say the measures, intended to make trials fairer for the accused, create cumbersome paperwork.
The first law requires prosecutors to obtain and turn over hundreds of documents in many cases: a demanding task that can complicate questioning witnesses and otherwise preparing for court. A second law ties the delivery of this material to the speedy trial time, putting prosecutors under time pressure to collect all the material once indictments are filed. (This law is known as Kalief’s Law, named for Kalief 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 breathalyzer, a defense attorney is entitled to six months’ worth of calibration reports for that device. Prosecutors are also still required to turn over a similar number of calibration reports filed after the defendant used the device.
The new laws aren’t the only reason for departures. Prosecutors say their city-funded budgets are too thin 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 led to record numbers of voluntary redundancies across all industries.
Prosecutors say their staff have problems. Ms Clark said her office’s lawyers, who are overwhelmed with paperwork, could make $30,000 more doing similar jobs for law firms, potentially allowing them to work from home as well. “Why not?” she said.
State lawmakers rewrote the Discovery Act in 2019 after defense attorneys said prosecutors were withholding key evidence. The previous law required them to release certain evidence only after defense attorneys had requested it in writing.
Because the defendants – a disproportionate number of whom are black – were not privy to the full body of evidence against them, they often accepted pleadings rather than risk a trial.
“The Defense Chamber was basically in the dark as to what the case was about,” said John P. Buza, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan Attorney’s Office who is now a practicing defense law partner at Konta, Georges & Buza, PC
Public defenders argued that without pressure on prosecutors to disclose exculpatory facts, their clients were at constant risk of being wrongly convicted.
The Discovery Act changed that. Prosecutors are now required to turn over 21 types of material, including any electronically created or stored information relevant to a case.
Prosecutors now have to rush to get reams of paperwork — much of it coming from the New York City Police Department — and take it to defense attorneys or risk a case being thrown out. Prosecutors often handle up to 100 cases at a time, 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 that their cases will be dismissed or that I will fire them”.
“When they are under so much pressure, they prefer to go somewhere else where their quality of life is better,” she said. “You don’t have to work nights, weekends or holidays and do all these discoveries.”
Caitlin Nolan, an 11-year veteran of the Manhattan Attorney’s Office, said in an interview Friday that she began looking for a new job last spring amid the challenges of working for a low salary, the day-to-day difficulties of… pandemic and the frustration with the new laws. She left the office in January.
“It was difficult to comply with because we had so much to produce,” she said, adding that it was particularly nerve-wracking to provide information about witnesses – who would express to her their concerns about defendants knowing their identities – racking
In testimony recently submitted to the New York City Council, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg illustrated the strain. He reported that prior to 2020, his office was consuming about 32 terabytes of data storage. Today it uses 320 terabytes, a 900 percent increase in two years.
Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, said she agrees that prosecutors — and public defenders — needed more money for competitive salaries, especially given the discovery laws.
“Heavy workloads, even heavy workloads for public defenders, lower morale. I won’t deny that,” she said, adding that she expects the state to allocate tens of millions of dollars to local prosecutors in the upcoming budget for staffing.
But she said: “It cannot be and it must not be that the way you solve a workload problem is to diminish the rights of a person accused of a crime.”
Mr Buza said his former colleagues are not saying the principles underlying the new laws are unfair or misguided, but that they are simply overwhelmed by the way the job as a whole has changed, with the need to hunt down documents for which they are legally responsible – even if they don’t know such materials exist.
“People go into the job because they have an idea of what it means to be a prosecutor, and they go to court and try cases, and they end up basically just uploading discoveries,” he said.
Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed changes to the Discovery Act that would prevent a judge from dismissing a case if a prosecutor “substantially complies” with Discovery obligations. Ms. Luongo said various counter-proposals are being negotiated.