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.