A resolution of sorts has arrived at the Bronx Defenders, with lawyers Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli both resigning from the firm as a consequence of the controversy over their involvement in the “Hands Up” rap video. News reports say that Executive Director Robin Steinberg has been suspended for 60 days without pay, and that Steinberg and her organization will be under increased scrutiny in the future.
Offhand, this sounded about right. Not in the sense of being just or fair — the complaints about Steinberg in particular seem overblown — but in the sense that it sounds like enough to placate the wolves and allow Mayor Bill de Blasio to claim he did something about the problem.
News reports also mentioned some other changes, and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) has now sent out a letter explaining the corrective actions, which includes additional review and correction steps. I don’t know enough about New York bureaucracy and politics to understand what it really means, but Scott Greenfield does, and his criticism is withering.
Regarding the hiring of Jason Lilien, former Bureau Chief of the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, to advise the Bronx Defenders board on how to address the problems identified by the DOI’s findings, Scott remarks,
Perfect, because the funding for Bronx Defenders will be far better spent on paying for this nonsense than representing the indigent. After all, everybody knows how indigent defense is rolling in so much dough they have oodles of money to squander on paying non-productive former state functionaries.
And then, they now have a former Attorney General bureau chief telling an indigent defense organization how to function. Perhaps it didn’t dawn on the mayor’s office, but the attorney general’s office is on the other side of the criminal justice function, the side that wants to see every client of Bronx Defenders convicted.
The MOCJ also wants the city’s Corporate Counsel to create a training program to help the Bronx Defenders “ensure that its attorneys are zealously representing the interests of their clients and observing their responsibilities as officers of the court,” to which Scott responds,
So New York City’s Corporation Counsel, whose job it is to defend police for wrongful conduct, will now have their finger in the training of public defenders to “ensure” they are zealously representing their clients?
Let me just remind everyone that the “Hands Up” lyrics are about the community anger over the fact that police seem to face no consequences for killing young black men. Now the organization that helps ensure they face no consequences has been given influence over the Bronx Defenders.
The one thing that has never been in doubt was that Bronx Defenders did its job well. There is, on the other hand, some serious doubt about the efficacy of Corp Counsel’s office, it being the place where third stringers get jobs after they’ve been turned away by the two US Attorney’s offices, five city district attorney’s offices, and the Special Narcotics prosecutor.
The notion that anyone at Corp Counsel should have any part of their anatomy, whether a finger or worse, involved in what Bronx Defenders do is ridiculous. If anything, Robin Steinberg ought to teach Corp Counsel lawyers how to do their job, though she wouldn’t because they are the adversaries in the system.
As Scott summarizes the changes, it’s pretty typical government theater with a dose of cronyism:
All of this over a momentary appearance in a music video? Of course not. The video was trivial, though the punishment, that skims money out of indigent defense so it can be used in the Full Employment For Former Government Functionaries Act, will directly harm the poor in the Bronx.
This is about the mayor appeasing the cops, at the expense of Bronx Defenders, and more importantly, the defendants in the Bronx courts who have long suffered mightily at the hands of cops who target their neighborhoods, their youth of color.
This all seems like an awful lot of trouble over a few lawyers who opened the office on a Sunday so they could be in a music video. Hopefully, the Bronx Defenders won’t have to waste too much more time and budget dealing with it.