Even before the pandemic struck New York, the Genesee County District Attorney's office was hit hard, according to DA Lawrence Friedman, by new discovery rules that greatly increased the workload of attorneys in his office, he said.
Now, his office is faced with the daunting task of catching up on a backlog of cases at a time when courts are scheduling defendant appearances further apart.
In order to maintain social distancing in courtrooms, courts are putting a time buffer between cases, which impacts the workflow and increases the time an attorney can be tied up in court, Friedman said.
"The same thing is going on in every court in the county," Friedman said. "We can't even imagine what that is going to do as far as our time commitments. We're concerned."
When the pandemic hit, Friedman's office was in the process of hiring a seventh full-time attorney to help with the prosecution load but before a new person could be brought on board, the county initiated a hiring freeze.
The hiring freeze remains in place but yesterday, Friedman asked county legislators at the Public Service Committee meeting to lift that freeze for this one position in his office.
"We're well aware of the financial difficulties faced by the county but the same pandemic that created the financial problem has only increased our need for the position," Friedman said.
Before the hiring freeze, Friedman did hire two new paralegals, authorized in this year's budget, to help with the workload mandated by the new discovery rules (under the new rules, there is more material to review and turn over to defendants in a shorter period of time).
"This is not a position we can just fill immediately," Friedman said. "We need a month to get the word out and collect resumes, schedule interviews, and make a job offer. Generally, attorneys like to give four weeks' notice. So it could be a couple of months, at best, before we're able to hire someone."
Only Friedman and First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Finnell have more than 14 months of experience in the DA's office and Friedman will retire at the end of 2021.
The workload in the office is also increasing because state troopers will start wearing body cams, which will mean more evidence to review in some cases, and the repeal of Public Service Law 50-a, which used to keep police disciplinary records confidential, has also made the discovery process more burdensome.
"Our obligation is to make sure that information is disclosed to the defense," Friedman said.
The public defender's office, Friedman noted, also has six attorneys handling criminal cases but the office, Friedman said, handles only "a fraction" of the cases the DA's office handles. Since defendants might hire a private attorney or received assigned counsel, the Public Defenders Office doesn't handle every single criminal case in the county, which the DA's office does.
There are also state grants available to help cover the public defenders' budget, Friedman noted.
Friedman also noted that new City Court Judge Durin Rogers is "more demanding" and takes up more time on cases, and Town of Batavia Supervisor Greg Post has also asked for more DA time in the Town of Batavia Court.
No committee member offered any comment on Friedman's request nor is there an indication on when the legislature might consider it further.