The Nassau County Legal Aid Society Fiasco

It’s been a while since Ken Womble left his first job as a public defender for the Nassau County Legal Aid Society to go to Brooklyn, but the lingering anger and pain stayed with him. Until he let it out in this extraordinary Fault Lines exposé.

Upon arrival, the public defender is handed a list with the names of criminal defendants who must be arraigned that day along with some of the Penal Law charges each one is alleged to have violated. This is the totality of information the public defender receives before heading down to the basement cells to meet and interview his new clients.

The utterly ineffectual management at the Nassau County Legal Aid Society has not taken this lying down (more lounging with a slight, but still quite comfortable, incline). They have created a tool to assist their attorneys with the impossible task of interviewing upwards of 50 clients without any valuable information. A card.

The story only gets worse, with public defenders interviewing clients at the bars of mass holding cells, without having in hand the complaints or rap sheets, with no time to speak to defendants, no less their families to enable them to prepare for arraignment. Needless to say, a defendant who doesn’t get out is monumentally more likely to lose, to plead out, than one who does, making arraignment one of the most critical phases of the process.

Adding insult to injury, the first meeting is where public defenders desperately need to establish a rapport with their clients, to show that they aren’t the “public pretenders” many think they are. Instead, they are left to look like idiots, unable to provide basic information about the charges. It’s hard to establish trust when a lawyer has to ask a defendant why he’s there.

Just as one would expect Nassau County, just over the border from New York City, to have candidates for District Attorney who have a clue, one would also expect its public defenders to have the professionalism, training and dedication found in the City.  This isn’t happening in some god-forsaken courthouse in Bumfuck, Nowhere, for crying out loud.

So I reached out to Kent Moston, Attorney-in-Chief of Nassau LAS, and Debbie Wright, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, which took over the bargaining unit for Nassau County last year.  Moston never got back to me, but Debby Wright, shocked by what was happening, quickly replied.

How was this possible, I asked?  Wright explained that Nassau LAS was still in the “dark ages,” and that Moston had little more interest in talking to her than he did to me about his “own little fiefdom.”

“You just have to accept it,” Wright said she was told by Moston. “We’re not like the City, and that’s the way it’s done here.”  Apparently, there was no crossover between the City LAS and Nassau County, no sharing of resources such as training, which is highly developed in the City and nearly non-existent in Nassau.

When Wright’s association first took over the Nassau public defenders, she sought to meet with Moston, to work with him to end the downward spiral of public defenders being incapable of doing their jobs.  She said that he had no interest in meeting with the union, and his response was essentially to “sit in the corner and be quiet.”

But what about the failure to be able to perform basic functions? She was told “at the end of the day, it’s really just about bail.”

As horrifically clueless as that was, it turned out that it wasn’t “just about bail” at all, but about institutional problems plaguing Nassau LAS.  Unlike the City, it doesn’t hire “classes” of lawyers, all coming in at the same time, being trained, and put into action. Rather, Nassau LAS hires ad hoc, throwing essentially untrained individuals, with no classmates to help, into the deep end.

New lawyers for the Nassau LAS give a three year commitment, but they struggle to keep them, both because of the working conditions and the fact that they know they will be terminated at the end of their commitment. Unless one of the few senior lawyers leaves, there is no place for them, and the experience-drain means there is no incentive to fulfill their commitment. So off they go, as soon as they can find a better job.

And while they’re there, the public defenders are “criticized by management for fighting cases, rising caseloads, not taking pleas.” The implication is clear: shed as many cases as possible as quickly as possible.  Make the wheels of justice grind the bones of indigent defendants into dust.

“So what do you expect me to do, plead my clients all the time?”

Exactly.  That’s how public defense happens in Nassau County, where going along to get along, where happily being a cog in the machine, is the “way we do it.”

When I asked about whether this was just a money issue, the lack of funding for public defense, Wright told me about one of the most shocking details she’s learned in investigating how they do the job out in Nassau.  They actually have empty meeting rooms available in the basement of the courthouse, which could be used for private interviews of defendants.  They just don’t use them.

Why? How is it possible that they could have space available but not use it?  Because it would require corrections to move defendants from the holding cell to the meeting rooms, and they just can’t be bothered.  And Moston can’t be bothered to fight for it, because “it’s just about bail.”

Nor are the fundamental problems permitted by Nassau LAS’s acquiescence in moving their clients from the frying pan to the fire limited to the poor. It sets the tone, the “way we do it,” for all defendants. This is particularly true when former Nassau Legal Aid lawyers leave to go into private practice, and carry with them their experience of “how it’s always done.” Be part of the machine. Don’t fight. Don’t make waves. That’s the way to get along.

Oh yeah. And make sure you plead ’em guilty early and often. The Nassau County way.


20 thoughts on “The Nassau County Legal Aid Society Fiasco

  1. Ken Womble

    Fun fact about the 3 year commitment. I heard that the were forced to change it after I left, but the 3 year time period is not arbitrary. When I began and for years prior to that, new attorneys had a portion of their salary placed into the pension fund. The individual’s pension vested at … you guessed it, 3 years. The same careless cowards running that office now spent years siphoning off money from young attorneys and then firing them before they could get their hands on it.

  2. Myles

    And the local paper, Newsday, has never uttered a word about the quality of indigent representation in Nassau County. Funny how nobody told them and it takes some bloggers to reveal this rats nest.

  3. John Barleycorn

    The Legal Aid Society of Nassau County should really redo their logo. Perhaps they can snag some kids from grade school on a field trip to the courthouse and let them break out the finger paint in those empty basement rooms and see if they can come up a bit more accurately adjusted scale. Kent and some guys from corrections can supervise.

    P.S. Nice of the judges to play along.

  4. Jennifer

    I don’t disagree with Ken that the arraignment system is broken. There of course needs to be complaints, rap sheets, private meeting space, more time. But the author of this article says the attorneys don’t have the same professionalism and dedication as their counterparts in the city. Untrue. Overall, when I was there for 6 years, it was a group of attorneys who cared very much for fighting for their clients and sticking it to the DA. I was never pushed to dispose of cases and was encouraged to try cases. I made plenty of waves and I think it was rather enjoyed by my colleagues and direct managers alike. There’s no such thing as enough training, but I also didn’t feel that I was thrown into the deep end without support either.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “author” is reporting on what current and former Nassau LAS lawyers are saying to him and Debbie Wright. You are certainly entitled to feel otherwise, but based upon the reaction to this post from current LAS lawyers who emailed to thank me for this post but were afraid for the jobs to comment publicly, your feeling isn’t necessarily shared by others.

      1. Jennifer

        So they e-mailed agreeing that they’re not dedicated or professional? I doubt that they agreed with that part. I can’t argue that others might have had a different experience with management than I did because I’m not them. My point was more to the fact that I thought you took a shot at the lawyers themselves, who, I think are dedicated and professional despite any gripes with management.

        1. Jennifer

          That being said, there were certainly other issues with management in district court when I was there where the attorneys should have been backed up more by their supervisors, the fiasco with the pension that Ken mentioned above, etc. So, there’s certainly room for improvement.

        2. SHG Post author

          Some lawyers see any criticism as one that applies to them personally. Unfortunately, that’s the way of the world these days, young people who are obsessed with their personal feelings and inclined to take offense at anything that doesn’t extoll their fabulousness.

          Fortunately, others care more about being lawyers, representing their clients, fulfilling their duty to zealously represent the indigent. They realize the problems with Nassau LAS aren’t the fault of rank and file lawyers, but the systemic failure to provide them with the training, supervision and support they need to do their jobs.

          I have been inundated with lawyers thanking me for writing this, bringing up additional problems and praying that these posts will force a change. This is because the rank and file lawyers give a damn about their clients and how they’re not receiving the representation they deserve; not because they are so fragile that anything short of tummy robe is taken as an affront.

          1. Jennifer

            I’m proud of the work I did there, and still do as a PD elsewhere, with a great group of attorneys who I would describe as dedicated and professional. I’m thankful for the training and guidance I received from both supervisors and my colleagues.

        3. Myles

          Fascinating how PDs (and ex-PDs) complain (rightfully) about the intolerable conditions under which they’re expected to do their jobs, some going so far as to publicly admit they are providing ineffective assistance of counsel, and yet when the very practices they complain of are pointed out, they get all butthurt at the suggestion they aren’t all the greatest thing to criminal defense since Clarence Darrow.

          You can’t have it both ways. The butthurt makes you sound like apologist for failure. Even your admission that there’s room for improvement is about you, not the defendants. You have made the case for lack of professionalism and dedication. Maybe if you cared more about indigent defendants than hurt feelings, this fiasco wouldn’t have gone on so long.

        4. Ken Womble

          Jennifer, you are reading things into this that are not there. The arraignment procedure is an absurd violation of defendants’ rights. I did it. You did it. So did many other dedicated public defenders in that office. I never worked as hard as I did in Nassau. But once I got out and continued my work as a public defender, I was able to accomplish much more in a fairer system. This is not an attack on public defenders. This is an attempt to change the leadership in that office so that those public defenders will have a fighting chance.

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  6. P.E. Troll

    A sadly accurate picture with no likelihood of change any time soon with the current management in place.

    The situation is further complicated by a dominant local bail bond company publicly putting pressure on judges who do not set bail, or bail high enough for them to do business; local judges being completely hostile to or ignorant of alternatives to cash bail (other than the occasional release to the supervision of the ineffective probation department); and these same judges believing they have a right to clear a 100+ defendant calendar by 11:30 am. l was in a “Legal Aid part” one morning when the judge asked all of the Legal Aid attorneys to huddle up at the bench so he could explain this expectation–not a single question or objection from the bunch.

    Given that Nassau County is the only jurisdiction in NY that to my knowledge expects speedy trial waivers at every appearance in order to engage in “plea bargaining” (a term that has its own perverse meaning there) there is no incentive whatsoever for the power structure to see any issues with business as usual, which has been going on for the 20+ years I’ve been practicing there, and much longer from what I’ve been told. It’s not as if every attorney there will collectively stop agreeing to the waivers.

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