Defending the Rights of the Public Every Step of the Way
We Defend Clients in Court
We Defend Communities
The expansive reach of the Criminal Defense Practice runs from its dynamic advocacy of clients in court to its presence and partnership in communities. As the primary public defender in New York City, staff zealously and tirelessly work to protect the rights of the most marginalized and disenfranchised in society. Yet our scope, as the country’s oldest and largest public defender, goes beyond any single case or client. Our community engagement, impact litigation, and broader advocacy consistently strive for increased fairness and humanity in the criminal justice system and seeks to reduce the devastating and permanent consequences of system involvement for our clients.
The Practice includes experienced trial offices in every borough, an Appeals Bureau, a Parole Revocation Defense Unit, a Prisoners’ Rights Project, a Community Justice Unit, and a Special Litigation Unit. In each area, the Practice has developed innovative model projects that garner expertise and push both the practice and discourse of criminal justice forward. In the past year, the Practice represented nearly 230,000 clients in trial, appellate, and post-conviction matters and have pushed for critical reforms that end injustice and discrimination based on race, gender and poverty.
Day in and day out, our staff works to protect and fight for clients navigating justice system involvement. Our effectiveness stems from our work before, during, and after a criminal case. For example, Practice staff field intake inquiries from clients needing assistance, engage in vigorous bail advocacy, and work with clients’ families to mitigate the larger impact of an arrest. Holistic advocacy is the hallmark of our representation; our attorneys, paralegals, investigators and social workers explore all angles of allegations and charges, relentlessly seeking to avoid unnecessary, unjust incarceration and connect clients with critical resources that address ongoing needs and obstacles.
Our staff tackles every issue confronting our clients, pressing on questions like the validity of eyewitness identification and the need for access to police disciplinary records. The Practice’s units devoted to DNA and digital forensics evidence and litigation apply the latest advances in order to challenge the government and secure evidence essential to the defense of our clients. We elicit narratives that often include compelling stories of innocence and false accusations, a fuller development of the facts, and critical context. The results are dismissals, acquittals, placement in alternative to incarceration programs, reversals and even the clearance of wrongful convictions decades later.
Our courtroom advocacy goes far beyond individual cases. Through the work of our law reform units, Special Litigation and Prisoners’ Rights Project, systemic change is achieved. The Legal Aid Society was the driving force of fundamental reform when we sued, and won, the right for people who are arrested to be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest.
As the City’s primary public defender, we believe advocacy must not only take place in the courtroom, but in the communities where our clients live and work. Everyday our defenders are engaging clients, community members and advocacy groups helping to amplify the voices of people affected by a broken criminal justice system.
Practice members regularly testify before lawmakers and government agencies to comment on proposed legislation and provide insight on issues affecting our clients. The advocacy has led to important legislative victories. The Criminal Practice provides, in each forum, a critical and frequently overlooked voice, highlighting where reform is necessary.
Members of the Practice worked closely with New York City Council members to formulate a series of bills that would improve bail posting procedures, analyze the issue of ICE officers removing immigrant New Yorkers from our Courts and the need to increased accountability and transparency of the New York City Police Department. In addition to local hearings, members of staff have testified at New York State Assembly and Senate hearings and numerous, state and national panels, commissions and task forces. We believe that work to reform the criminal system is equally as important to the work we do on behalf of our individual clients.
The Decarceration Project
We Demand An End To Mass Incarceration
In June 2016, The Legal Aid Society launched the Decarceration Project, a bail litigation and policy initiative fighting to end the illegal incarceration of low-income New York’s – most of whom are Black and Brown. The Project is dynamic, providing litigation support to trial staff, partnering with grassroots organizations to work on local and state policy, and running several separate initiatives aimed at reducing the Rikers population. Housed in the Project is the Time Saved Campaign, which provides assistance to sentenced people who have had their sentences calculated incorrectly, and the Women’s Pretrial Release Initiative, a collaboration between Legal Aid and Fedcap focused on getting cis- and trans-women off of Rikers Island.
The Decarceration Project fights to make pre-trial detention the exception, not the rule. Our system’s over reliance on incarceration ruins lives. Pre-trial incarceration of even a few days has disastrous consequences: people can lose their jobs, homes, benefits and even children. But most importantly, people lose time with, and connection to, their families, communities and even their lawyer. As a result, these New Yorkers are more likely to take a plea deal, admitting to a crime they did not commit just to get themselves out of jail. The trauma that results from pre-trial incarceration affects thousands of New Yorkers every single day.
The Project is a partner in the #CLOSErikers and #FreeNewYork campaigns and is a leading voice in several local and statewide bail reform coalitions, including the Bail Bond Accountability Coalition. As a part of our legislative advocacy we lobby Albany and engage in efforts to educate the public about pre-trial detention. In 2018, the unit appeared in front of the City Council several times to testify on bail reform measures, algorithmic fairness, and progress towards closing Rikers Island. The unit has trained Legal Aid attorneys in all five boroughs including the new classes, criminal defense attorneys in Westchester County, and lawyers in Albany at NYSDA’s annual training program. Attorneys in the unit also regularly appear on panels and CLE trainings on bail reform.
In 2017, the Decarceration Project won a landmark victory in a New York County Supreme Court case, People v. Bello. In ordering our client’s bail be lowered to an amount his family could afford on two cases, Justice Daniel Convisor ruled that “our extensive reliance on a pretrial detention through a bail system which often determines whether a defendant can remain at liberty based primarily on how much money he has is morally problematic, unduly expensive, and counterproductive to both the goals of efficiency and the principles of due process.”
The unit has partnered with two firms to further develop impact litigation strategies: Davis Polk & Wardwell and Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
Time saved campaign
In 2017, we launched the #TimeSaved campaign. The campaign highlights the work of Legal Aid Society paralegal case handler, Terry Davidson and his sentence calculator, and is pushing to reform antiquated sentencing practices to ensure that nobody is unjustifiably detained beyond their release date.
The Women’s Pre-trial Release Initiative
Keeping Families Together
The Women’s Pre-trial Release Initiative, is an alternative to detention program currently operating in Manhattan and Brooklyn in partnership with Fedcap and the Open Society Institute. The Initiative’s main focus is securing the release of women who are detained pre-trial, with the goal of closing the Rose M. Singer facility on Rikers Island. In conjunction with trial staff attorneys, the Initiative identifies women who are suitable candidates for intervention, and refers those women to social workers for a needs assessment. Once complete, our major partner, FedCap, identifies community supports and services aimed at ensuring wellness, self-care and stability. FedCap also follows up regularly in order to ensure the women return to court.
The Project provides each participant with a path for building economic stability, wellness, and community through the following integral components:
• Strong immediate support and continued coordinated care.
• The crafting of both an Initial Service Connections Plan and Long-Term Individualized Plan, designed around each woman’s stated needs and present capacity.
• Assistance and advocacy in applying for benefits, securing housing and otherwise interfacing with governmental agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Homeless Services.
• Help in accessing medical assessments and necessary care.
• Structured employment training and job placement through Fedcap’s specialized programs.
• Financial literacy and assigned individual mentors in partnership with High Water Women.
• Self-care workshops given by community providers around wellness, goal orientation, financial literacy and smart spending, parenting, etc.
• Self-advocacy trainings by Fedcap’s Director of Social Justice Initiatives and different legal organizations on criminal, family, housing, education and mental health law.
Case Closed is a pilot project of The Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice. Launched in October 2017, Case Closed helps regular New Yorkers seal their previous convictions. Through our comprehensive approach, Case Closed identifies those who are eligible to have their convictions sealed, represents them during the process, and passionately advocates for broader legal reform. Every day, Case Closed works at the front-lines of the fight for these vulnerable New Yorkers who have suffered in silence for far too long. Having a criminal record is a severe burden in our country. New Yorkers with criminal records are routinely barred from job opportunities, denied basic government benefits, have trouble securing affordable housing, and live under the weight of institutional and personal discrimination. Many of these New Yorkers are victims of outdated, biased policing methods that aggressively targeted communities of color, and now individuals from those communities are still paying the price of this unfair treatment. Fortunately, there is hope.
Now, under a new law, some individuals with criminal records can have their convictions sealed. New Yorkers who have not committed a crime in ten years and who have no more than two convictions, including one felony, can apply to have their record sealed. These changes have opened up an incredible opportunity for thousands of New Yorkers.
As the city’s premier public defender, we are moving quickly to assist our clients, offering essential legal help to New Yorkers as they try to seal their records and move forward with their lives. In just six months, Case Closed has already shown some remarkable results. We are working with more than 100 clients throughout all five boroughs. For 32 of these clients we have filed sealing applications, with 17 different cases sealed so far. Of those who have had their records sealed, some have already obtained new jobs, applied for college, and moved to neighborhoods with better schools for their children. Lifting the financial and psychological burdens of having a criminal record is truly life-changing.
Although these personal victories have changed the lives of our clients, there is still room for growth. Across our city, thousands of people are potentially eligible to have their records sealed. With that in mind, we are pushing for broader legal reforms, educating our city on the myriad ways that a criminal conviction drastically affects our fellow New Yorkers. Our movement is growing, and now is the time to capitalize on our momentum to change the system to make a lasting impact on our city.
The Community Justice Unit
Learn more about the work of the Community Justice Unit! Check out its most recent newsletter here.
The Community Justice Unit (CJU) was established in 2011 as part of the New York City Cure Violence (CV) model by the New York City Council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence. The CJU partners with CV sites to provide robust legal services to enable healthier and safer communities.
The goals of the CJU are to provide direct and comprehensive legal services as well as community outreach, legal education/clinics and trainings to the CV network. Our legal education clinics have empowered thousands of New Yorkers in high schools, community organizations and even in jails. These education efforts are a key component of our larger transformative public defender services. We support healthier communities by teaching their rights in the criminal and civil contexts, by demystifying legal systems and by explaining how to effectively access legal services.
FOIL THE NYPD GANG DATABASE
The Legal Aid Society launched its FOIL website in 2018 in order to streamline the process for New Yorkers to submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to determine if they have been labeled by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as a gang affiliate. Like the stop and frisk strategies that the NYPD relied upon in the recent past, the databases are likely to be over inclusive and inaccurate. Unlike the stop and frisk records, the databases are secret, do not require even a suspicion of criminality, and are not subject to Fourth Amendment protection and judicial review.
Currently, law enforcement maintains and shares databases alleging gang affiliations of individuals who are not notified or given the opportunity to challenge such designations. Information is collected on adults and juveniles (as young as 12 and perhaps younger) alike. Individuals are added to the databases, not based on criminal conduct but based on area of residence, association and appearance.
The Manhattan Pilot Project
In March the unit launched a Pilot Project in Complex 1 in Manhattan. The Pilot paired an additional attorney, social worker and paralegal with the complex to assist trial staff in litigating bad bail decisions. The Pilot Project concluded in November after eight months of working in close partnership with staff attorneys in Complex 1. We served 141 clients and filed or helped file 99 bail challenges in court. Nearly half of the clients we worked with were released or posted bail, and the number of Complex 1 clients ROR’d after Criminal Court arraignment rose 167% from the same period in 2016. We are encouraged by these results and are eager to apply what we learned in the Pilot to help detained clients citywide.
Appeals and Impact Litigation
Currently the unit has several cases pending in both Appellate Divisions. There are two cases in the First Department, with one focusing on the inequities of the money bail system, and the other litigating the Manhattan District Attorney’s use of sealed records in a bail application. In the Second Department, the unit is litigating an Article 78 proceeding against a Queens judge who threatened to raise bail as part of a habeas proceeding.