An Exodus From the City’s Public Defense Offices

Good morning. It’s Thursday. We’ll look at public defenders who are leaving their jobs, citing low pay. We’ll also look at one man’s quest for new ways to cultivate seaweed.

“We’re just not being paid what we’re worth,” said Javionte Johnson, above, a 27-year-old public defender with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.

He has stayed on the job, working to see that a fundamental promise of the Constitution is upheld — that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But hundreds of lawyers like Johnson have left New York City’s public defender organizations over the past year, disheartened by low pay that they say undervalues their work. They complain that they are at a disadvantage in court, at least psychologically: The prosecutors they face can earn at least $10,000 more a year.

The Legal Aid Society, New York’s largest provider of criminal and civil services for indigent clients, has lost 10 percent of its staff, or about 200 people, over the past 12 months, a 73 percent jump from 2021. Among those who left were 55 public defenders who tried criminal cases and 37 legal services attorneys who represented clients in housing and immigration court.

The turnover at other defender organizations has been even higher. Over the past year, Brooklyn Defender Services has lost 40 attorneys, or 27 percent of its staff; and the New York County Defender Services has lost 30 attorneys, or 24 percent of its staff. The Bronx Defenders has lost 18 attorneys, while the Queens Defenders has lost 17 attorneys.

My colleague Jonah E. Bromwich writes that the departures have put additional pressure on the lawyers who remain. The concern is that clients will not receive the representation they deserve at a time when there is political pressure on prosecutors and the police to tamp down gun crime.

The court system has expedited gun possession cases in recent months. Such cases are often complicated, and public defenders say that faster schedules make it more difficult to ensure that clients receive fair treatment. The lawyers worry that speed could lead to mistakes — which could, in turn, send their clients to jail for years.

The lawyers also say that accelerated court calendars leave them little time to search for evidence that might clear their clients or negotiate possible plea deals with prosecutors.

“With the courts putting this pressure on and essentially valuing the process and efficiency over the constitutional rights of our clients, it’s just creating this ridiculous amount of pressure,” said Diana Nevins, 38, a public defender who works in Queens, “and it’s frankly unreasonable.”

While first-year law school graduates at Legal Aid’s criminal practice make about $74,000 a year, as much as lawyers paid by the city, their salaries lag those of prosecutors and city lawyers after five years.

That has made raises a priority for lawyers at legal service providers. Defender organizations have scheduled a rally on Thursday to call on city officials to provide help, including $10 million for Legal Aid alone.

“Budgets are values,” said Tina Luongo, the chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice. “If you’re worried about staffing N.Y.P.D. and staffing up corrections, but you’re not worried about staffing up the public defenders, you’ve got a value problem.”


Weather

Prepare for showers and thunderstorms, later turning to a mostly sunny day near the 80s. The evening is mostly clear with temps around the low 60s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until June 20 (Juneteenth).


Michael Doall is the Johnny Appleseed of sugar kelp.

Yes, in one sentence, we compared apples with, um, seaweed. It gets tangled in your toes at the beach. It wraps itself around the propellers on boats, including yours, if you’re lucky enough to have a boat.

Doall became a marine scientist when he grew up — a shellfish specialist at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook University — and an oyster farmer. And then he discovered sugar kelp.

It’s a native species of seaweed that captures carbon and removes nitrogen in water far more efficiently than the nitrogen-reducing septic systems required in new homes in Suffolk County, where Doall lives. Sugar kelp helps to prevent algae blooms, which are harmful.

And people who’ve eaten it say it tastes good. Meaty. Brothy.

Seaweed aquaculture is barely a blip in the U.S. economy compared with Asia, where most of the world’s kelp is grown. But Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation last year that cleared the way for kelp to join oysters in the increasingly diverse business of aquatic cultivation. The measure opened 110,000 acres in the Peconic estuary, in Long Island, for potential seaweed farming.

Our writer Charity Robey says that if seaweed aquaculture takes off in New York, it will be in large part because Doall has shown other farmers how to grow where no one has grown before.

He suspected that kelp would be a good winter crop that would not interfere with his warm-weather oyster farming. But he learned that all kelp aquaculture in the U.S. took place in deep water and involved 10-foot-long tendrils that hung from lines suspended underwater, swaying freely in the ocean. These were conditions that did not exist in the knee-deep waters of a Long Island oyster farm.

“No one had really tried to grow in shallow water,” he said.

But — with a grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute in 2018 — he figured out how. He tested his new method at Paul McCormick’s Great Gun oyster farm in East Moriches.

Since then, Doall has developed seaweed-growing techniques for everything from the shallow, sandy bottom of Moriches Bay to the fast-flowing, murky East River. He has offered advice and planted on more than 15 commercial sites — all considered experimental, because state regulators are still working out health and safety regulations for farming seaweed.

The first harvests at the Peconic Estuary sites were a bust. Doall suspects the waters there are too clean. Pollutants like nitrogen tend to be lower there, leaving fewer nutrients to fuel the growth of kelp. But last month’s harvest at a shallow-water farm nearby produced hundreds of pounds of kelp for Sue Wicks, the Hall of Fame basketball player who is banking on the commercial future of kelp.

“In a few years, we are all going to be considered an overnight success,” she said. “I want to be part of the future and what sort of food we will eat. And I get to do it in the bay I grew up on, where my father grew up and my grandfather and my grandmother.”


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

After college, I lived in the East Village, scraping by. I found a neighborhood barbershop that advertised $10 haircuts and went inside.

A barber, Toufik, ushered me to his chair with a friendly grin. With our reflections in the mirror, we swapped stories about our nephews — mine in Baltimore, his in Algiers. He was a musician, and I was, too.

I became a regular. I learned about the ins and outs of renting a barber’s chair as I followed Toufik from storefront to storefront over the next few years.

One day, I showed up for a haircut and the barbershop was empty: doors locked, barber’s chairs gone. I had no way of finding out whether Toufik had set up shop elsewhere. Eventually, I moved out of the neighborhood.