Testimony delivered at “Client satisfaction surveys for city-funded indigent legal services”

Alex Crohn, General Counsel of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice - December 4, 2015


Statement of Alex Crohn

General Counsel, Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

New York City Council

Client satisfaction surveys for city-funded indigent legal services Committee on Courts and Legal Services

December 4, 2015

Good afternoon, Chair Lancman and members of the Courts and Legal Services Committee. My name is Alex Crohn and I am General Counsel for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (“MOCJ”). Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am joined by my colleague, Jamison Blair, Counsel for Management and Operations at MOCJ.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice advises the Mayor on public safety strategy and, together with partners inside and outside of government, develops and implements policies aimed at reducing crime, reducing unnecessary arrests and incarceration, promoting fairness, and building strong and safe neighborhoods.

New York City is proud of its robust system for providing indigent defense, which serves the vast majority – over 90% – of the people who go through the City’s criminal justice system. Several indicators distinguish New York City’s indigent defense system. Every defendant is assigned a lawyer at arraignments, which is not the case in other jurisdictions within the state and nationwide. And our City’s innovative providers have developed comprehensive wraparound services, including dedicated immigration lawyers and social workers who assess needs and connect clients to available
support. Such services, coupled with high-quality legal representation, serve as a lifeline for many New Yorkers who come from chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods and face significant housing, employment, and immigration challenges, some of which can be exacerbated by contact with the criminal justice system. Additionally, the City’s Assigned Counsel Plan is currently working a cutting-edge case management technology tool to support the City’s hundreds of 18B lawyers.

The high-quality representation that exists in New York City’s indigent defense services is attributed to various quality control measures that are already in place. These include rigorous hiring standards, extensive and ongoing training, performance reviews, and constant supervision for attorneys.

The City invests significantly in high-quality indigent defense. In Fiscal Year 2015, New York City will spend over $225 million on indigent representation. Of this total, $150 million goes to Legal Aid and institutional providers in each borough. Additionally, New York State government will add $55 million to the annual budget to the institutional providers as part of a recent effort to fund reduced caseloads for indigent defense attorneys throughout New York City. Assigned Counsel Plan, or 18b attorneys, will receive $75 million in city and state funding for indigent representation in FY15.

We take these investments seriously, and just as we approach every other part of the criminal justice system, we are committed to effectively measuring what works and what needs to be improved. Effective evaluation allows us to ensure that funding supports evidence-based practices and to track, refine, and increase accountability.

In January we testified before this Committee that measuring the quality of indigent legal services is widely acknowledged to be difficult and most existing evaluations are limited. For example, some performance metrics only evaluate one-time snapshots of a public defender office, have access to limited data, or do not allow for evaluation of changes in policies, practices, or procedures. Most existing evaluations also fail to provide information about the most effective resource allocation, and do not always tell you what is or is not working and why. The challenges associated with evaluating indigent defense systems exist nationwide.

In the months since, our office has taken important steps toward improving how we evaluate indigent defense to ensure that we are not just counting outputs, but truly capturing the quality of representation. On October 1st of this year we were awarded a Smart Defense Initiative grant by the Department of Justice. Under this grant, we are working with the Center for Court Innovation to improve case management capabilities and attorney oversight for the City’s Assigned Counsel Plan, and to lay critical groundwork for extensive system-wide evaluations in the future.

The lessons we are learning in implementing this grant will have spillover effects, helping us to more effectively measure the quality of all indigent defense providers in the City. Specifically, we are identifying key performance indicators that correspond to articulated best practices, using methods ranging from quantitative analyses to individual focus groups. Although not yet finalized, we anticipate indicators such as whether or not specific motions were filed, certain appearances were made, the number of visits conducted by the attorney—all vital aspects of attorney practice—to be highly relevant in determining the quality of attorney representation.

Accordingly, the City generally supports the spirit behind Intro. No. 958 because, at its core, the bill aims to improve the way we evaluate the quality of legal representation. However, we think that the mechanism the City develops to evaluate these services must comprehensively measure the quality of services and identify system-wide areas of improvement. Therefore legislation may be premature at this time. We hope the current research we are conducting with CCI will inform this process and the extent to which client feedback is an effective measure of the quality of legal defense.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today. I would be happy to answer any questions.