Defenseless

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The woman who came into his office was frightened, says Leonard Noisette. Her son had been arrested. She heard that the arrest may have been violent, and he might have been hurt. She didn’t know where her son was, and she didn’t know where to go for help.

But Noisette, director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, had to turn her away. “In the past we would have been able to intervene in that case immediately,” he says. “Those are the types of calls that we get all the time, and unfortunately we’ve had to turn them away because we really don’t have the capacity to deal with it.”

The 8-year-old Defender Service normally opens 2,500 new criminal cases annually, representing poor people who can’t afford an attorney. It gets about $2 million from the city each year for public defense; the organization also runs adult legal education and teenage crime prevention programs.

But since its funding got ensnared in a political struggle between Mayor Giuliani and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the group hasn’t been able to afford to take on new clients.

The administration froze some $165 million in nonprofit funding this summer, after the City Council passed its own budget for the first time in history. Vallone said in June that he would sue the mayor’s office to get the money released. His attorneys haven’t filed the papers, though–because, they say, the damage hasn’t yet been done.

“I’ve drafted my litigation papers, and I’m just waiting to fill in the details,” Vallone legal counsel Richard Weinburg told City Limits in August. “But, ironically, you don’t have a lawsuit unless people are hurt, and we’re still waiting for people to come forward. And that’s not going to happen until people start feeling the pain.”

“Well, I think that certainly we are feeling pain,” counters Noisette. “This money is essentially all of our money.” The Neighborhood Defender Service has now laid off more than half its staff, including 11 of 15 lawyers. They’ve even had to drop ongoing cases. Says Noisette, “Other than talking to people and giving them some guidance, there wasn’t anything we could do.”