Celebrating Right to Counsel

In August of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that made New York City the first city in the country to offer free legal services to all tenants facing eviction in housing court and public housing authority termination of tenancy proceedings.

One year later, we are already seeing incredible results for tenants across our city. Read this full report on how Right to Counsel has helped us make equal justice a reality for all New Yorkers.

New Legal Aid Unit Aims To Tackle Racial Justice Inside And Out

  Anne Oredeko is the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society's new Racial Justice Unit. Photo courtesy of The Legal Aid Society

Anne Oredeko is the supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society's new Racial Justice Unit. Photo courtesy of The Legal Aid Society

Anne Oredeko went to law school knowing she wanted to work toward social justice, and her career has so far followed that path. After an initial stint as a Legal Aid Society public defender in Brooklyn, she spent two years at Youth Represent, a nonprofit serving young people who end up in the criminal justice system.

But as a lawyer, Oredeko wants to be a resource for activist movements rather than leading any herself.

"I have a tool set that I can use, but that tool set is not the only way that people are going to find liberation," she said.

Oredeko hopes to share those tools as the supervising attorney of Legal Aid's new Racial Justice Unit, which aims to tackle racial justice both in the courtroom and within the city's largest legal services group.

Informed by grassroots organizations and Legal Aid's other staff, the unit will bring litigation around systemic racial justice issues such as gentrification, Oredeko said.

While the unit is still being developed, Oredeko said it will also provide support to on-the-ground groups that often don't have access to lawyers.

"I really want it to be able to dig deep and start to really pull at the underlying issues that a lot of New Yorkers are facing and a lot of New Yorkers are being harmed by,"she said.

Oredeko also wants to help Legal Aid's attorneys and support staff attach a racial justice lens to their work through training and educational programs.

The unit will aim to aid those staffers in understanding the social and cultural dynamics of their interactions with Legal Aid's clients — who are mostly low-income black and brown people — while also offering resources to help staff sustain themselves, Oredeko said.

"You can come into this work with the best intentions but if you yourself have not worked on creating anti-racism as a central focus in your own personal life, or in your own work life, you're still going to be impacting your clients in a negative way," she said.

Now about two weeks into the job, Oredeko is currently the unit's only staffer. But she said she hopes to eventually bring in staff attorneys to help.

Oredeko said she thinks Legal Aid is unique in creating a division dedicated to racial justice. It's a model other organizations should follow, she said.

"I think a lot of organizations intend to incorporate those practices, and intend to incorporate that lens," Oredeko said. "But for Legal Aid to step outside of just intending and actually designating a unit to have a path of doing that work consistently, I think that's really rare."

NYLJ: Appeal Waivers Are Not Truly Voluntary

PHOTO: LAW.COM

By David Loftis Attorney-in-Charge,
Post Conviction and Forensic Litigation
The Legal Aid Society

NY Appeals Judges Say Trial Courts Should Act to Quell Appeal Waiver Challenges” (NYLJ, 11/9/18) describes comprehensive opinions by Second Department Presiding Justice Alan Scheinkman and Associate Justice John Leventhal that urge trial courts to be more careful about ensuring the voluntariness of appeal waivers in guilty plea cases.

The main problem, however, is not the ill-chosen words of plea court judges. It is that, under the current appeal waiver regime, such waivers are not – and cannot truly be – voluntary. In the main, appeal waivers are not individually negotiated components of a larger plea bargain for which an accused receives a measurable benefit. Rather, in most New York City counties, district attorneys (and even some judges) demand appeal waivers as a non-negotiable ironclad condition of any plea bargain in any case. Such across-the-board waiver policies are antithetical to a fair criminal justice system. They are particularly pernicious in cases where a plea follows the denial of a defense suppression motion.

Appeal waiver policies in these case operate to conceal instances of racial profiling, police perjury, unreliable identification procedures and coerced statements. They deprive the accused of an opportunity to vindicate his or her constitutional rights on appeal, an opportunity otherwise guaranteed by the Criminal Procedure Law in guilty plea cases, and always available to the prosecution when the court rules in favor of the defense; they stunt the development of appellate suppression jurisprudence and; they are flat-out bad public policy. Rather than seeking to shore up such regimes, our appellate courts should, as former federal judge and current Harvard faculty member Nancy Gertner recommends, act to disassemble them.

David Loftis is the attorney-in-charge of post-conviction and forensic litigation for The Legal Aid Society.

Gothamist: NYC's Legal Assistance Program For Tenants Is Saving Thousands From Eviction

NYC's Legal Assistance Program For Tenants Is Saving Thousands From Eviction
November 15th, 2018
By Jake Bittle

http://gothamist.com/2018/11/15/nyc_legal_assistance_tenants.php

For almost a year now, New York tenants who live in select ZIP codes have been entitled to a free lawyer if their landlord tries to evict them, thanks to a law passed by the City Council in 2017. But you might not know it from walking into the Bronx Housing Court on the date of your court appearance. Only one sign on each of the building’s five floors lists the ZIP codes that are currently covered as the five-year rollout of the law continues. These signs are handwritten in marker, and two of them were inaccurate on a recent November afternoon.

If you went straight into the courtroom and waited for your case to be called, you still might not know: the two judges assigned to the covered ZIP codes in the Bronx only announce the existence of the right-to-counsel program once a day.

Today, the city will hold the first public hearing on the the right-to-counsel law, which took effect in January after a broad coalition of organizers spent years pushing for its passage. Lawyers, tenants, and advocates who spoke with Gothamist ahead of the hearing said the implementation of the program thus far has been promising, but uneven. Court-appointed lawyers have started to transform the predatory environment of housing court, resulting in fewer evictions, but some eligible tenants still slip through the cracks, and implementation has been more successful in some boroughs than others.

Before the hearing, the city’s Human Resources Administration released a report showing that nearly one third of tenants who appeared for eviction cases this year were represented by lawyers, up from only 1% of tenants in 2013. According to the city’s analysis, this new representation prevented over 22,000 evictions across the five boroughs. By 2022, legal services will be available to anyone in New York who makes up to double the federal poverty level— $30,000 for an individual, or $50,000 for a family of four.

For a Bronx tenant named Pamela, who asked that we withhold her full name due to her ongoing legal proceedings, the mere fact of having a lawyer on her side made all the difference. Her landlord took her to court claiming she didn’t send rent checks that she says were cashed. With the help of her Legal Aid lawyer, she pushed for an adjournment, and the court subpoenaed the landlord’s financial records in order to investigate who cashed the checks and when.

“If I didn’t have a lawyer, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I would have been stressed out, headaching, trying to figure out what I can do to get the truth out. And you know, I’m a fighter, but that doesn’t mean I can do it all on my own.”

“The climate in these courtrooms has changed significantly,” said Andrew Scherer, a lawyer who chairs the New York City Bar Association’s civil justice task force, which formed earlier this year to evaluate the rollout of the right-to-counsel law. “People are more aware of their rights, and there’s a lot more actual litigation going on.”

Still, Scherer says he’s observed some hiccups in the rollout, most noticeably in the Bronx. In that borough, lawyers contracted by the city to provide free counsel are based not out of an enclosed office, but off a counter in the third-floor lobby where they process around 50 new cases a day, a much higher load than other boroughs. The caseload and the chaotic arrangement of space make it very difficult for the service providers to have private, substantial conversations with their clients.

“Capacity is a huge issue there,” said Scherer. “These facilities were inadequate when there was half the current amount of litigation.”

Owing to the chaos, many tenants end up advocating for themselves against the professional lawyers hired by their landlords. On a particularly busy Thursday, one man, Wilfredo Guillermo, had been waiting for more than an hour to speak with Legal Aid when Gothamist interviewed him. Guillermo said he was considering dealing with his case on his own. The landlord for an apartment where he no longer lives, he said, had taken him to court over rent that his former spouse, who still lives there, hadn’t paid.

“For so long, housing court has been a collection agency for landlords,” said Judith Goldiner, the Legal Aid attorney who has overseen the organization’s right-to-counsel contract with the city, hiring dozens of new lawyers to meet the demand. “It’s understandable that tenants don’t think it could actually work in their favor,” she said. “We’re making it into a real court.”

When facing unrepresented tenants, attorneys representing landlords often try to end cases before they even begin: they pull tenants from the courtroom into a crowded hallway, present them with a stack of paper, and telling them they can leave court immediately if they sign on the line and agree to a deal offered by their landlord. Sometimes these lawyers will even approach tenants and try to hash out deals without revealing who they work for.

What’s more, Goldiner said, many tenants fear backlash from their landlords if they choose to take a lawyer, and some landlords’ lawyers threaten to revoke settlement deals if the tenant takes a lawyer. But the biggest hurdle Legal Aid has faced thus far in the Bronx, she said, is simply making sure tenants are aware that counsel is available. According to the city’s data, 56% of tenants in the eligible ZIP codes claimed their free counsel this year.

At Housing Court in Brooklyn, things are relatively more organized. When tenants visit the clerk to get their case ticket, the clerk is supposed to tell them if their ZIP code entitles them to a lawyer; if the clerk doesn’t, two employees of the nonprofit Housing Court Answers wait at a table in the screening room to inform them of their rights. As eligible tenants proceed to their cases, they are processed again by employees from the city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees the right-to-counsel program. When their cases are called, the supervising judge, Marc Finkelstein, reminds them of their rights again.

David Burton, a lawyer who mainly represents landlords in Brooklyn, said the right-to-counsel law has contributed to an increase in what he called “unnecessary motion practice.” Represented tenants, he said, tend to file more motions for delay and adjournment, which stretch out cases that might formerly have been opened and closed with a single appearance.

“The attorneys do drag things out, which is unfortunate,” he said. But Burton also claimed many cases still proceed as they used to because the facts in many eviction disputes are on the side of the landlord. “Getting evicted in New York is like failing a test,” he said. “You have to try really hard to fail a test, and you have to try really hard to get evicted.”

But to tenants like Elizabeth Johnson, who was at court in Brooklyn the same day to fight an eviction, the systems in place at housing court all seem designed to disadvantage tenants. Her landlord, she said, illegally evicted her from her apartment before the date by which the court told her she had to leave.

“They called the police into the apartment and kicked us out,” she said. “Then they changed the locks so we couldn’t get back in to get our stuff.” But with the help of her lawyer, she said, she was negotiating that day for time to return to her apartment and retrieve her belongings.

“With the launch of Universal Access to Legal Services last year, New York City became the first jurisdiction in the nation to guarantee legal assistance to all low-income people facing eviction,” said Steven Banks, commissioner of the Department of Social Services in a statement. “Now, one year later, this initiative has provided thousands of New Yorkers the fighting chance they deserve to avoid eviction and harassment, having a positive impact not only for those who are able to remain in their homes but for the City overall.”

And even despite the challenges involved in rolling out such an ambitious program, some advocates and legislators want to expand right-to-counsel even further. The free representation offered by the city does not cover appeals, for instance, or Section 8 disputes. Mark Levine, a City Council member who represents Upper Manhattan, has also introduced a bill that would expand the range of incomes covered under the law—it currently covers those who make at most twice the federal poverty standard, but Levine’s bill would expand that to four times the standard.

Scherer also noted that the passage of right to counsel laws in New York had inspired the passage of a similar law in San Francisco; he also said he’s consulted with lawmakers working on similar legislation in cities including Chicago and Philadelphia.

“There are going to be hiccups, of course,” he said. “There was no way we were going to be able to represent tens of thousands of tenants overnight. But we’re fundamentally changing the culture of the courts. It’s a big disruption.”

NY1: NYCHA Settlement Rejection: What Does This Mean for Tenants

BY INSIDE CITY HALL NEW YORK CITY
NOV. 14, 2018

After a federal judge rejects an agreement between the city and the federal government to overhaul the public housing authority, Grace Rauh discussed whether there’s help on the way for tenants, with Politico New York’s Sally Goldenberg and the Legal Aid Society’s Judith Goldiner.

WSJ: Federal Judge Scotches Deal Over Conditions in City’s Public Housing

By Corinne Ramey Nov. 14, 2018

A federal judge Wednesday rejected a settlement between New York City’s public-housing agency and Manhattan federal prosecutors, saying the agreement didn’t do enough to address residents’ concerns and the job description of a proposed monitor was too vague.

The ruling comes in response to an agreement, announced in June, that settled prosecutors’ multiyear probe into health and safety conditions at the New York City Housing Authority. Under the settlement, a monitor would oversee sweeping changes at NYCHA, the nation’s largest public-housing agency.

In his 52-page written ruling, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III said overseeing such a settlement, known as a consent decree, wasn’t the proper role of the court.

“Because the Proposed Consent Decree is not fair and reasonable, and because its entry would disserve the public interest, the Government’s motion for approval is denied,” he wrote.

The agreement was intended to address mold, broken elevators, lack of heat, lead paint and what prosecutors described as the authority’s systemic management failures, among other issues. On Wednesday, the judge called NYCHA’s litany of problems “somewhat reminiscent of the biblical plagues of Egypt.”

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the decision “will not affect the record investment Mayor de Blasio has dedicated to reversing decades of divestment and mismanagement of public housing.” Under the agreement, the judge wrote, the city had agreed to provide the authority with almost $3 billion in previously budgeted funding, an additional $1 billion over four years, and $200 million annually in subsequent years.

A NYCHA spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement that his office was reviewing the decision. “The well-being of the over 400,000 NYCHA residents continues to be our paramount concern,” he added.

Among the possible next steps for the parties are to appeal the ruling, renegotiate the settlement or find other ways to address authority buildings’ disrepair.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Judge Pauley’s rejection of the settlement meant for NYCHA residents, although he suggested it could delay needed funds.

“He’s done a good job at highlighting the problems, but we already knew what those problems were,” said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. “Without money, how are we going to make sure the heat stays on this winter?”

The judge told the parties to file a report by Dec. 14 explaining how they wished to proceed. In his ruling, he outlined several possibilities.

“Desperate times call for desperate—and sometimes politically unpopular—measures, whether that be exploring public-private housing partnerships, infill development, or the sale of air rights,” Judge Pauley wrote. Other options he mentioned include replacing NYCHA’s management or putting the agency into receivership, an arrangement in which a local housing authority is under federal or judicial control.

RELEASE: Broad Cross-Section of Advocates and Legislators Across NYS Called on Democratically Controlled State Government to Pass Slate of Initiatives to End Mass Incarceration and Promote Justice

People Across NY Held Rallies for Pre-Trial Justice, Parole Justice, Ending Solitary Confinement, Legalizing Marijuana, DV Survivor Protections & Other Changes

In light of the recent election results that put Democrats overwhelmingly in control of the New York Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s office: lawmakers, survivors of incarceration, family members, and a broad cross-section of advocacy groups held speak-outs today in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Rockland County, and Syracuse. Speakers across the state urged Governor Cuomo, Senators, and Assembly Members to finally enact a platform of interconnected, urgent, and necessary policy changes in the upcoming legislative session to: end mass incarceration, promote community empowerment, end state violence and torture, and end structural racism and other forms of intersectional oppression. Specific legislative demands included (in the order of the stages of the system):

  • Marijuana Legalization and Taxation Act, S3040/A3506;
  • Bail, S.3579A/A5033A, and Discovery, S.7722/A10135 reform;
  • Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, S.5116/A.3110;
  • HALT Solitary Confinement Act, S.4784A/A.3080B;
  • Restore education access, S.3735/A.3995, and voting rights to people incarcerated & on parole;
  • Restore 7-day visits, S.6725/ A.7241 and free visiting bus program, S.5693/ A.7016, house people close to their children, S.7757A/A.10204, and ensure technology is not used to restrict family ties.
  • Parole Justice: Elder Parole, S.8581/A.6354A, and S.8346/A.7546; and
  • Reparations, S.5624A/A.7274A, and racial & ethnic impact statements, S.5921/A.7519 & A.5851.

“New York has never had a greater opportunity to enact key criminal justice reforms and I am hopeful that our movement will be successful in the coming year. We will not accept any further delays while the criminal legal system continues to destroy people, families, and entire communities across the state. Political leaders in Albany must make the reforms necessary to end New York’s epidemic of mass incarceration immediately,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.

“For decades, New York’s racist criminal legal system has targeted Black and Brown people, immigrants, and the LGBTQIA community with mass criminalization and state sanctioned violence. In spite of this, these communities have been building grassroots power to fundamentally change the system and end mass incarceration in our state. Central to that strategy has been organizing for progressive representation in our legislature. New York is now a triple blue state. We have the unprecedented opportunity to pass policies that will decarcerate and achieve racial justice and equity for all New Yorkers. There are no more excuses. We cannot call ourselves a progressive state while allowing this to continue. We demand that New York State dismantle injustice in the 2019 legislative session. - Jamaica Miles, Capital District Lead Organizer, Citizen Action of New York

Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration “wants our state officials to know that mass incarceration is not a downstate issue, it is an all-state issue. Communities outside New York City represent more than half the 78,000 people in local jails and state prisons in New York State. The racial disproportion upstate is as great as, and in some cases greater than, it is downstate. Here in Albany our families and communities are devastated by the same practices being addressed all over the state today: bail that punishes the poor, the torture of solitary confinement, cruel and unnecessary parole denials, elders dying in prison, racist impacts on people of color at every level, and more. Our upstate communities are also represented in the campaigns to demand change -- voices of activists, advocates, prison families, and people formerly incarcerated. Today's coordinated speakouts across the state are a signal that our upstate and downstate justice organizations can and will speak with one strong voice to demand broad, deep, and uncompromising reforms.”

“Transformative legislation must be on the top of every electeds to-do list,” said Marvin Mayfield, a leader of the #FREEnewyork Campaign and member of JustLeadershipUSA. “We expect and demand legislation that decarcerates and acknowledges the fundamental dignity of all people. This includes bail reform that ends money bail without instituting risk assessment instruments or mass electronic shackling. It includes discovery overhaul that ensures people have early, open, and automatic access to the evidence in their case. It also includes the legalization of marijuana, elder parole, and the end of long-term solitary confinement. New York must dismantle systems that have targeted and criminalized Black, brown, and working-class communities. The time is now.”

"Mass incarceration remains the law of the land and that must change. We need reforms to Bail and Discovery laws in Albany and significant decriminalization across our state to keep people out of jail. We must also hold District Attorneys accountable for not turning over discovery, making high bail requests and for false arrest and wrongful prosecutions," said VOCAL-NY community leader Dwayne Lee.

“Next session, Albany will finally have the opportunity to reform many outmoded criminal justice laws including discovery, bail, speedy trial, and others,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Our clients – mostly New Yorkers from communities of color – have borne the brunt of these broken laws, and robust reform cannot wait any longer. The Legal Aid Society joins others here today reaffirming our committing for progressive reform and urging Albany to advance these measures immediately next session.”

"We can't end mass incarceration in New York State unless we create clear decarceration pathways," said Anthony Dixon of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign. "Governor Cuomo and the legislature could do that tomorrow by fully staffing the Parole Board with commissioners who are committed to restoring parole-ready individuals to a useful existence, ensuring the parole release process is based on who a person is today, and releasing elders from prison. Cuomo and our legislators should be ashamed that our state has the second largest prison budget in the union and is home to the second highest population of parole-eligible lifers. Once the home of anti-slavery abolitionists, New York state has become a principal investor in the Prison-Industrial-Complex and a leader of a punitive-fixated generation. It's time to take action and change course.

The Coalition for Women Prisoners “stands today with the organizers of this speak out to demand that New York lawmakers support and enact laws and policies that result in ending mass incarceration, ensure humane treatment of those who are currently incarcerated, and eliminate the barriers to successful re-entry to those who are returning to our communities. The Coalition for Women Prisoners wants NY elected officials to know that now is the time to finally end the criminalization of domestic violence survivor/defendants and pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, providing alternatives to prison instead of the long sentences that survivors currently receive. We demand justice for DV survivors, and NY lawmakers can make that a reality.”

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement “stands in Solidarity with the gathered groups to address and say to Governor Cuomo and State Senators and Assembly Members that "We the People" demand a fairer and more just systemic change to reflect the real needs of the people. NY must pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to end the torture of solitary for all people, including thousands of New Yorkers who regularly spend months, years, and even decades trapped in a box. NY must also bring pre-trial and parole justice, protect DV survivors, restore voting rights and higher education access to people who are incarcerated, promote and support the families and communities of incarcerated people, repair the harms of mass incarceration, and transform the entire injustice system that is destroying people, families, and communities.”

“For far too long, our State has fallen short in our efforts to reform our criminal justice system and has marginalized low-income and minority communities in the process,” said State Senator Gustavo Rivera. “I will continue to work tirelessly to finally enact progressive policies to establish a more efficient and just criminal justice system while addressing the dire consequences our communities have faced as a result of these unjust policies.”

“We have a lot of work to do in the upcoming legislative session when it comes to criminal justice reform,” said Assemblyman David I. Weprin, Assembly Correction Committee Chair. “By passing a number of key pieces of legislation in the next year, including my bills to codify 7-day visitation at state correctional facilities, institute elder parole, and provide for presumptive release for individuals with low risk; we can make for a better, safer and fairer New York in 2019. I want to thank my Assembly colleagues who have been partners in the prison reform effort. I also want to thank the broad coalition of prison advocacy groups who have continuously advocated and to promote justice across our great State.”

Robb Smith, Executive Director of Interfaith Impact of NYS, said, "We join with our allies in calling for long-overdue criminal justice reforms. Interfaith Impact strongly supports passing the HALT Act immediately to mitigate the torture of solitary confinement in our prisons. We are also outraged by the egregious Jim Crow practice of using cash bail to keep innocent poor people, and especially people of color, in our local jails. There are many alternatives to cash bail. It's time to stop this unjust incarceration of the innocent."

Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement said: "The psychological and physical harm of solitary confinement cannot be ignored any longer. Many states, counties, and cities have moved away from this barbaric practice AND seen positive outcomes as a result. It is time to start holding those in positions of power responsible for the choice to use torture on arguably one of the most vulnerable populations in the country."

ENDORSING ORGANIZATIONS: Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), Alliance of Families for Justice, Brooklyn Defender Services, Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration (CAAMI), Center for Law and Justice, Citizen Action of NY, Coalition for Women Prisoners, Correctional Association of NY, CODEPINK NYC, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), End Solitary Santa Cruz, Interfaith Impact of NYS, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, John Brown Lives!, JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), The Legal Aid Society, Life Progressive Services Group Inc. Westchester, NAACP Albany Chapter, National Action Network, New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, New York State Council of Churches, NYC Metro Raging Grannies, Public Interest Resource Center at Fordham Law School, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), ROC/ACTS Criminal Justice Task Force, Rockland Coalition to End the New Jim Crow, Rockland Prison Justice Project, Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement, Unchained, Uptown Progressive Action, Urban Justice Center, VOCAL-NY, WESPAC Foundation.

BACKGROUND: The system of incarceration in New York continues to destroy people, families, and communities. Rooted in the ongoing legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and ghettoization, New York’s policing, jails, and prisons are at their core driven by racism, dehumanization, and otherization. Black people in particular are targeted for criminalization, policing, incarceration, and other state violence and torture. These systems also target women, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people; Latinx, Native American, and Muslim people; people with mental health needs; poor people of all backgrounds; and other marginalized people. Moreover, the incarceration system is deeply interconnected with the mass detention and deportation of our immigrant sisters, brothers, and cousins.

Because incarceration is a tool and product of the intersectional oppression of our people and communities, a paradigm of punishment infuses the incarceration system. The results are atrocities ranging from police killings and violence, to incarcerating people rather than proven health interventions for addiction or mental health needs, to people suffering in cages while in jail pre-trial, to predatory prosecutions including of DV survivors, to extreme sentence lengths and people languishing in prison for years and decades, to the torture of solitary confinement and horrific officer brutality, to stripping New Yorkers of access to education or voting rights or family/community connections, to repeated parole denials to people who pose no safety risk, to perpetual barriers to reintegration, to immigrants targeted for detention and deportation. These policies and practices have devastating impacts on people, families, and communities.

New York must dismantle this racist and patriarchal injustice/incarceration system and reconstruct our State through caring and empowered communities with control over the decisions and resources that affect our own lives. To enhance true public safety and build stronger communities, New York must shift focus and resources away from the violence of incarceration and toward services, programs, support, healing, transformation, and empowerment that help communities thrive.

As a result of years and decades of community advocacy and activism, Democratic policy-makers in New York have in recent years been calling for, and running elections on the need for, fundamental changes to the injustice/incarceration system. Meanwhile, their Republican opponents this election cycle tried to push forward a race-infused “tough on crime” campaign. Unlike in past decades, the voters overwhelmingly rejected this fear mongering. With Democrats as a result in firm control of the New York Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s office, now is the time to adopt and implement urgent and necessary changes. As a start, today’s participants called for Governor Cuomo and New York legislators to focus this legislative session on the front-end fueling of the carceral state, the horrors endured by people incarcerated, the perpetual incarceration of people and denials of release, and the need to dismantle the entire racist system and repair the harm inflicted.

Specifically, this session there must be marijuana legalization in light of how the drug war has been a façade for a war on Black and Brown people and poor people that fueled the incarceration system. Changes must also address how women, particularly women of color, are criminalized and the need for judges to have discretion in sentencing DV survivors convicted of crimes directly resulting from their abuse. Changes must address the unjust pretrial system, jail abuses, and jail expansion across New York counties, including overhauling bail and discovery laws to ensure due process, the presumption of innocence and ending wealth- and race-based jailing, as well as enhancing oversight and ultimately ending pretrial detention. Lawmakers must also empower people through access to education, voting rights, and strengthened support for families and community ties while ending the torture of solitary confinement as part of a shift away from the racist punishment paradigm of the whole system. They must address draconian sentences, perpetual punishment, and the need to release people who have spent years and decades in prison and demonstrate their low risk and release readiness. Ultimately, New York policy-makers must, in this legislative session, begin to dismantle the entire racist and horrific system and repair the harm inflicted.

After Midterm Elections, Defenders Call on Albany to Pass Critical Criminal Justice Reforms Immediately

The Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem issued a joint letter following the midterm elections to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on the need for Albany to pass and implement key criminal justice reforms immediately when session convenes early next year.

The letter states:

As you are well aware, New York State’s antiquated and outmoded laws for decades have undermined the presumption of innocence, fueled mass incarceration, allowed intolerable court delays, and caused countless wrongful convictions – all with massively disproportionate impacts on Black and Latinx New Yorkers, immigrants, and other marginalized people. Young people with otherwise bright futures have had their lives needlessly upended by involvement in the criminal legal system. Our prisons and jails have destroyed people and families.

In addition to enacting real bail, discovery, and speedy trial reform, we urge you to take action on other key reforms like ending the torture of prolonged solitary confinement, as the State Assembly did last year; ensuring that every person in prison has a fair and meaningful opportunity for parole release; legalizing marijuana and repairing the harms of prohibition; raising the age of Youthful Offender status in line with the most current research on adolescent brain development; passing legislation to protect immigrants from deportation for misdemeanors; repealing 50-A to increase police transparency and accountability; ending warrantless ICE arrests in and around courthouses; expanding visiting opportunities in state prisons and restoring the free visiting buses; and more. 

Legal Aid Secures Temporary Stay of Eviction for 60 Brooklyn ‘Cluster’ Site Residents

Brooklyn Supreme Court at 360 Adams St. Photo: Rick Kopstein

The Legal Aid Society secured a temporary stay of eviction today in Brooklyn State Supreme Court for 60 residents of local ‘cluster’ site housing. Last month, a Judge ruled that these residents can be evicted because they are not protected by rent stabilization laws. The Legal Aid Society is seeking that this stay remain in place, pending their appeal of the Judge’s decision, which will be argued on December 17, 2018.

“We are grateful that the court granted this critical stay for these families – many with vulnerable children – who were facing immediate homelessness,” said Sunny Noh, Supervising Attorney with the Brooklyn Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Once our appeal is filed, we are confident that the Appellate court will agree with our arguments, reverse the lower court’s decision, and allow our clients to capitalize on lifesaving protections afforded by New York’s Rent Stabilization Law.”

Patch: City To Cut Harlem Residents From Home Ownership Program: Lawsuit

City To Cut Harlem Residents From Home Ownership Program: Lawsuit

November 13th, 2018

By Brendan Krisel

Advocates are suing the city to preserve dreams of home ownership at a Harlem apartment building that has gone unoccupied for 10 years, the Legal Aid Society announced.

The legal advocacy group filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court on behalf of six tenants of 206 W. 120th St., a six-story building located between St. Nicholas Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, to block the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development from removing them from the city's Tenant Interim Lease Program.

The building's tenant association entered the program in 2008, which required tenants to move into temporary housing while the city made renovations, according to the Legal Aid Society. The ultimate goal was to move back into a renovated building operated as a cooperative where residents could purchase their apartments for as little as $250.

Ten years later, the city is planning to sell the still-boarded-up building to a private landowner to be operated as a rental building.

"The Tenant Association of 206 W. 120th St. is fighting for their home after over a decade of broken promises and false reassurances from the City of New York. Despite the City's incompetence, confusion, chaos, and years of delay, NYC's Department of Housing Preservation and Development has wrongfully terminated my clients from their opportunity for cooperative homeownership," Legal Aid Society Attorney Jason Wu said in a statement.

Wu added that the lawsuit is seeking to re-enroll tenants in the Tenant Interim Lease Program, secure renovations to the building and prevent the sale to a private landowner.

Some tenants at risk of losing their prospects at home ownership include an 82-year-old woman and a military veteran, according to the Legal Aid Society. Most tenants in the building are long-time Harlem residents.

"206 W. 120th St. is just property to HPD, but for me and my neighbors this is our home. In 2008, HPD told us we had to move so the building could be renovated, and they promised us we would return as homeowners," 82-year-old Tenant Laura Edward said in a statement.

Jamal Kilkenny, a building resident and active service member in the military and the New York National Guard, said he had just returned from a deployment in Iraq when he received notice that HPD was removing the building from the TIL program.

An HPD spokesperson said they could not comment on pending litigation, but added that buildings that get removed from the TIL program benefit from rent-stabilized leases and a regulatory agreement to keep units affordable.

Despite the rent protections, the city's move to cut the TIL program from 206 W. 120th St. has received near-universal condemnation from Harlem's local elected officials. Attorney General-elect Letitia James said that building tenants remain "committed to seeing through the co-op conversion process," despite 10 years of displacement.

"That 206 West's conversion has not already been completed highlights the serious problems that plague this once promising and successful city program," James said in a statement.