Legal Aid & Weil, Gotshal & Manges File Class Action Lawsuit Challenging New York City’s Practice of Denying Domestic Violence Survivors Due Process in Housing Hearings

Lawsuit Could Impact Thousands of Domestic Violence Survivors

The Legal Aid Society and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP filed a lawsuit today in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York against the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) regarding the agency’s practice of excluding domestic violence survivors from Section 8 voucher “bifurcation” hearings that determine whether or not a survivor is able to stay in their home.

Domestic violence is a public health and human rights crisis and approximately one third of women have suffered from domestic violence across the United States. In New York City during 2017 alone, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) received over 100,000 reports of domestic violence. Coincidentally, many domestic violence survivors also rely on federal, state, and local housing subsidies, and when a low-income survivor decides to leave an abusive living situation, there is a risk that they may not be able to secure government assistance for new housing.

In 2005, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to protect survivors of displacement from their homes. Specifically, Congress authorized the owner of a housing unit who was benefitting from public assistance the opportunity to bifurcate a lease. The purpose of a lease bifurcation is to remove the perpetrator from a unit without evicting, removing, terminating assistance to, or otherwise penalizing a survivor who seeks to remain in the unit. In 2013, Congress again reauthorized VAWA and added a provision requiring landlords and public housing agencies to provide survivors an opportunity to establish eligibility for a housing program after the abuser had been evicted and when the abuser was previously the only tenant receiving said housing assistance.

In New York City, HPD administers the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), which provides assistance to eligible low- and moderate-income families to rent housing in the private market. Section 8 allows for “co-heads of households,” but its commonplace for abusers to only list themselves as the “head of household” to control the Section 8 voucher.

Often, when survivors have reported instances of domestic violence to HPD, only the abusers are notified of their due process rights, including official notice of the bifurcation hearing and an opportunity to share their side of the story. HPD does not provide similar due process rights to the survivors of domestic violence. Survivors are not formally notified of the bifurcation hearing or even allowed to be heard at the hearing. This egregious policy violates survivors’ due process rights and, because most survivors of domestic abuse are women, discriminates on the basis of sex.

This lawsuit was filed on behalf of B.D. – a survivor of domestic violence whose housing was jeopardized because of HPD’s current bifurcation practice – pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fair Housing Act.

“The Violence against Women Act protects low-income survivors from the Hobson choice of having to choose between homelessness or continuing to endure an abusive living situation,” said Casey Rubinoff, Staff Attorney with the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “HPD’s current practice is fraught with issues including discrimination and a lack of due process. Existing law requires that low-income survivors of domestic violence must be afforded the opportunity to stay in their homes. We look forward to correcting this practice in court very soon.”

POLITICO: Legal Aid filing class action suit over city's 'devastating' policy for domestic violence survivors

The class action suit, on behalf of B.D. and others, seeks to change the city’s policy to open bifurcation hearings to both parties so domestic violence survivors in similar situations can remain in their homes. | AP">

POLITICO: Legal Aid filing class action suit over city's 'devastating' policy for domestic violence survivors

01/17/2019

By Sally Goldenberg

A 59-year-old home health aide who said she was physically and sexually assaulted by her husband is facing eviction after losing a city-administered rental voucher that was in his name.

Now, the Legal Aid Society is filing a federal class-action lawsuit accusing Mayor Bill de Blasio's housing agency of maintaining an "unlawful and devastating policy" that imperils domestic violence survivors.

The woman, who is identified in court papers as B.D., convinced a family court judge to grant her a restraining order against her now-ex-husband in 2015, after he attacked her in their apartment with a knife, according to the suit being filed Thursday.

But she said she could not persuade the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the federal Section 8 program for city residents, to shift the voucher into her name. The couple, whose divorce was finalized last April, listed him as "head of household" when applying for the subsidy, thereby granting him control over it.

The voucher, which covers 70 percent of a household's rent, was changed to reflect her sole income after he left. But she said the city declined to remove his name after she repeatedly visited the agency's offices to present her case, leaving her vulnerable to interactions with him and a rent obligation she cannot afford.

"No one was there for me. It was me, all alone, and he have all the power over me," she said in an interview with POLITICO.

She described their marriage as a cycle of violence: He physically attacked her, threatened to kill her and raped her after she was instructed to refrain from sex because of a medical procedure. She said he forced her to clean the couple's bed sheets after he had sex with another woman while she was in a different room.

Shortly after getting a restraining order, she sought to "bifurcate" her subsidy by submitting to the city documented accounts of abuse, including a Certification of Domestic Violence, Dating Violence or Stalking. The form is intended to protect people under the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994.

But the city housing department never responded to her request, according to the interview and lawsuit. During in-person visits to agency offices, employees urged her to get a divorce. But even then, she was not able to get the voucher put solely in her name.

Last year, the agency held an administrative hearing with her ex-husband, which she said she did not know about and could therefore not attend.

"HPD claims that they received competing claims of domestic violence from B.D. and her husband. Ultimately HPD determined that her husband would retain use of the rent subsidy," according to the lawsuit, which is being filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

A copy of the city's decision was entirely redacted, the suit said.

Then, in March of 2018, the city's Section 8 division sent her notice that her subsidy would end the following month.

She cannot afford her monthly rent of $1,040 on her current income of about $1,060 a month, which she gets from workers compensation checks. She left her job caring for Alzheimer's patients because of a hand injury and said she plans to return, even though she is not yet healed.

After her subsidy ended she stopped paying rent and is now in housing court proceedings that could lead to her eviction, Legal Aid attorneys said.

Her restraining ordered expired on Jan. 24, 2018. Last fall she received a new one after her ex-husband showed up at the apartment demanding a copy of the current lease, which still bears both their names.

"He pushed in the door and I have to sit by the door until he moved," she said. "He was cursing a lot and I was really nervous and ended up in the hospital the day after." She thought she'd had a heart attack but was told she did not.

The class action suit, on behalf of B.D. and others, seeks to change the city's policy to open bifurcation hearings to both parties so domestic violence survivors in similar situations can remain in their homes.

"The Violence Against Women Act protects low-income survivors from the Hobson choice of having to choose between homelessness or continuing to endure an abusive living situation," Legal Aid attorney Casey Rubinoff said.

She said the city's practice is "fraught with issues including discrimination and a lack of due process."

The suit, which Legal Aid filed along with the firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, says the city's practice "denies women who are survivors of domestic violence access to housing opportunities on the basis of sex."

The housing agency said it could not comment on a lawsuit that has yet be filed.

"HPD takes this issue very seriously and has already taken measures to support survivors of intimate partner violence," said agency spokesperson Libby Rohlfing.

"HPD has notified Section 8 assisted households about their rights and protections under the Violence Against Women Act and conducted trainings for both staff and property owners," she added. "The agency works closely with survivors of domestic violence in our Section 8 program to assist them in securing safe housing. We encourage any of our clients who have an issue to reach out to us."

NY Daily News - A broken justice reform promise: Under a new law, sealing of records could help 600,000 or more New Yorkers; so why have only 1,000 come forward?

Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

NY Daily News - A broken justice reform promise: Under a new law, sealing of records could help 600,000 or more New Yorkers; so why have only 1,000 come forward?

January 15th, 2019

by Emma Goodman,
Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society's Special Litigation Unit

Jose was 16 when he was arrested in Brooklyn. He stole another kid’s bike. He and his friends were charged with robbery despite the fact that there were no weapons or injuries involved. His family didn’t know anything about the criminal system and his lawyer advised him to take a plea to a lower level charge to escape Rikers Island. Not understanding the consequences, he did.

Thirty-five years later, the weight of a non-violent felony conviction still hangs over his head.

Jose is an adult now with a wife and two children. He never went to college or applied for the jobs he wanted because he was afraid his conviction would prevent him from reaching his goals. He has been working tirelessly as a driver for his entire adult life. Finally, in 2018, he was able to get his record sealed. He is now applying for night school, and he and his family have new hope for the future.

When it comes to record sealing, Jose is one of the lucky ones. He fits the restrictive eligibility requirements of a new state record-sealing law that was passed in 2017, and he happened to read the Daily News on the day an article about the statute was published.

But the law is too limited to benefit the people who are suffering the most, and many of the few who can benefit don’t know that the law was passed. These are problems we need to fix, now.

New laws mean nothing if the people who can benefit don’t know they exist. The record-sealing law, which seals records for a number of adult criminal convictions if certain conditions are met, could potentially benefit as many as 600,000 people statewide. But it has seen fewer than 1,000 people benefit in over a year; that’s less than 1% of the people who are eligible.

There are many reasons for this disparity. The eligibility determination and judicial process are extremely complicated and difficult to do without an attorney’s help. The value of sealing records is unclear to many, and misinformation is being spread by private attorneys and online companies for profit.

But the biggest reason for the low numbers is the government’s failure to educate the public. Time and time again we, as legal advocates, see huge, self-congratulatory media splashes about new laws and benefits meant to help the community. But once the laws go into effect, the government goes basically silent.

At the Legal Aid Society, we’ve tried through a myriad of ways to spread the word to the community. With every newspaper article, television segment and public event, we reach more people like Jose. But why has this work been left just to community advocates?

Why hasn’t there been more publicity? We haven’t seen any billboards or subway posters, heard advertisements over the radio or seen them on television. What about more flyers at community centers and better local outreach? The numbers are low because the outreach just isn’t there.

In addition to better follow-through from Albany, there is huge room for improvement in the law. In order to truly redress the systemic wrongs of broken-windows policing, we should expand it to allow people with more than two convictions to apply for sealing. We should also reduce the wait time below 10 years and make the process more accessible for people to apply on their own without the needed help from an attorney.

The law as it stands is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough to truly help those suffering under the weight of criminal records. I hope that the Albany of 2019 will do better.

Goodman is Case Closed project coordinator at the Legal Aid Society.

Clearing A Path To Stay In America

Steve Sacco - The Legal Aid Society.png

M grew up in Burkina Faso during a time when the authoritarian government did not tolerate dissent. M was arrested for his political views, beaten, imprisoned and starved. After his release, M was re-arrested in less than a year and interrogated by the police about his political affiliations.

 Fearing for his life, M fled to the United States, hoping to escape a government that wanted him dead. However, now in the U.S., things continued to deteriorate. M was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and suffered a number of serious opportunistic infections in the years that followed.

Democracy has since returned to Burkina Faso, and so U.S. government officials wanted to force M to return to his homeland. However, we took a stand for M and argued on his behalf that, although he may be safe from political violence, M would now be in serious medical danger by returning. We even had a registered nurse from Burkina Faso provide written testimony on M’s behalf.

With our help, M won his case. He can now stay in this country and continue to receive the essential medical care he needs. Every day, our staff goes to great lengths to defend clients like M.

Statement on Governor Cuomo’s 2019 State of the State and Budget Address

Janet Sabel, Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement today responding to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 State of the State and Budget Address:

“For New York to fully realize its progressive promise, meaningful criminal justice, housing, and immigration reform must be central to Albany’s 2019 legislative agenda. Albany has waited too long to legalize marijuana and to expunge related decades-old criminal records; to overhaul broken bail, discovery, and speedy trial statutes; to address the housing crisis by strengthening and expanding tenant protections; and to advance measures that make our state more of a sanctuary for immigrants.

However, the devil is in the details, and to truly change a disparate system that has historically marginalized New Yorkers of color, low-income tenants, and the other vulnerable clients whom we serve, reform must be more aggressive than what has been debated in years past.

We look forward to meticulously reviewing this important legislation, and working with the Governor and the Legislature to ensure that truly robust changes make the final budget come April.”

NY Post: Notorious Queens landlord has paid a fraction of $4M in fines

Hillside House at 87-40 165th Street in Jamaica, NY. | Photo: Dennis A. Clark

Notorious Queens landlord has paid a fraction of $4M in fines

January 13th, 2019

By Nolan Hicks and Loren Mangelli

If Mayor de Blasio wants to make good on his vow to protect New Yorkers from slumlords, he can start at this Queens hellhole.

City inspectors have slapped 87-40 165th St. and its landlord, Eric Silverstein, with more than 1,000 violations worth nearly $4  million in fines since de Blasio took office in 2014, but have only moved to collect $138,600 from him, public records show.

“Once those violations are recorded, there is a disconnect on following up,” said Nelson Yeung, a lawyer representing tenants in a suit against Silverstein. “There’s no one to make sure these violations are fixed.”

With the city’s light touch giving Silverstein — No. 1 on the public advocate’s 2018 list of the city’s worst private landlords — little incentive to make repairs, tenants say they continue to languish among vermin infestations, leaky windows and rampant mold.

“I’m ashamed to have people over,” said Stella, a nurse and fifth-floor resident who requested that her last name be withheld.

Among the squalid living conditions Stella has to endure in the six-story, 118-unit Jamaica building are a nagging roach problem, leaks in the kitchen and a broken mailbox that forces her to pick up her mail at the post office.

“The city should hold people accountable,” said Stella — and de Blasio claims to agree.

“We’ll fine the landlords. We’ll penalize the landlords,” Hizzoner pledged in his State of the City address last week. “But if the fines and the penalties don’t cut it, we will seize their buildings.”

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has had no trouble finding problems, hitting the building with 1,104 violations since 2014, records show. But only 797 of the violations have been remediated as of Thursday, as the department has dragged its feet on hauling Silverstein into court.

Even the $138,600 that has been levied isn’t technically part of the fines, but a fee for the building’s compulsory enrollment in the Alternative Enforcement Program, records show.

The department has insisted that it is “aggressively using every available tool to . . . secure needed relief for residents.”

City Hall agreed, saying, “This administration is committed to using every tool available — and creating new ones — to protect tenants across the city.”

But Hizzoner’s record shows anything but a crackdown.

A recent New York Times investigation found that the department went easy on Manhattan slumlords, settling two-thirds of the 126 cases it brought for just a fraction of the penalties it could have collected.

And a front-page Post story earlier this month revealed a similar pattern of neglect at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Apartments.

Law 360: NY's Outlier Status On Coughing Up Evidence May Soon End

New York state Sen. Jamaal Bailey plans to introduce a bill this month that would reform the state's discovery law for the first time in 40 years. (Courtesy photo)

New York state Sen. Jamaal Bailey plans to introduce a bill this month that would reform the state's discovery law for the first time in 40 years. (Courtesy photo)

Law360.com | NY's Outlier Status On Coughing Up Evidence May Soon End

By RJ Vogt

In May 2015, the City of New York Police Department alerted media outlets of a manhunt for someone suspected of robbing three Queens-area Dunkin' Donuts at knifepoint over a four-day stretch.

Later that summer, prosecutors arrested Terrell Gills for allegedly committing the second robbery based on a partial DNA match — but nobody told him or his lawyers that a different person named William Waldon had already been arrested and confessed to the other two robberies.

Gills would go on to spend a year and a half awaiting trial from behind bars on Rikers Island, unable to afford a $10,000 bond. It wasn't until the week before his February 2017 trial that the district attorney's office shared detectives' notes revealing Waldon's arrest and subsequent 9-year sentence.

Gills' attorney, Maria Martinez of the Legal Aid Society of New York, said that if she and her co-counsel had discovered the notes sooner, they would have used the information to push for her client's release and a dismissal of the case. Although Gills was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and is now pursuing civil litigation against police, he still spent 18 months in pretrial detention for a crime he didn't commit.

"Essentially, the DA here just withheld evidence," Martinez told Law360. "For 18 months, we were operating in the dark."

Under New York's discovery law, considered one of the most restrictive in the country, the prosecutors were not required to turn over material like detectives' notes any earlier than they did.

But this year progressive lawmakers aim to amend the state's so-called "blindfold law" thanks to a new Democratic majority in the New York Senate. Senator Jamaal Bailey from the Bronx told Law360 he is filing a bill this month that would require material like police reports to be disclosed within 15 days of arraignment.

Like his previous efforts in 2017 and 2018 to amend the state's discovery law, Bailey said his bill would also require prosecutors to share witness information, as is already required in every other state except New York, Louisiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

"The prosecution, unless the matter is exculpatory, doesn't have to furnish the information until essentially the eve of trial," Bailey said. "That hamstrings defendants ... and makes defendants plead without having the requisite information. We're one of four states with such restrictive discovery requirements and I think enough is enough."

Bailey's reference to how New York compares to other states is backed by a report the New York State Bar Association's Task Force on Criminal Discovery published in 2015. The detailed 147-page document says that the state's rules haven't been significantly revised since 1979, making an overhaul "urgently needed and long overdue."

"New York's discovery statute does not even direct prosecutors to disclose all known information and evidence that potentially shows the defendant is innocent or that supports a defense," the report states. "Instead, it simply tells them without elaboration to follow constitutional requirements."

But three prosecutors on that task force warned in an attached dissent that changing the rules would have "enormous consequences for the criminal justice system."

In fact, many Empire State DAs are already practicing open discovery, without it being required, according to David Soares, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York and DA for Albany County. But he told Law360 that doesn't mean his organization will support changes that introduce unreasonable time constraints and potentially compromise victim safety.

"I think we're open to discovery reform so long as it doesn't put our victims and witnesses in harm's way," Soares told Law360. "The challenges that we as DAs are facing, they're not ethical, moral, political or however else you want to describe it — it's realistic, capacity challenges."

Soares noted, for example, that requiring police to turn over evidence such as body cam footage within 15 days of arraignment ignores the fact that a prosecutor has to watch hours of footage and block out identifying features of passersby before it can be shared.

As for the idea that witnesses' addresses and other information would always be kept discreet by defense attorneys, he pointed out that they're obligated to share information with their clients.

"We turn over grand jury minutes all the time," he added. "Those minutes end up on social media."

In November 2017, New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore attempted to alleviate some of the dispute over discovery standards by announcing that criminal trial judges should issue orders to prosecutors "to timely disclose exculpatory evidence favorable to the accused."

Along with orders reminding defense attorneys of their "obligation to provide constitutionally effective representation," DiFiore said at the time that the measures would "go a long way to help prevent and remedy systemic errors that contribute to wrongful convictions."

But her effort did not change any laws; only lawmakers can do that.

Bailey's legislation takes cues from a model discovery bill prepared by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which proposes prosecutors should be required to turn over "complete files" of all agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution at least a month before trial, including all evidence "that may reasonably appear to be favorable to the defendant" and a list of witnesses' names, addresses and phone numbers.

Bailey's bill, like the NACDL model, will require the same level of discovery from the defense as well.

Reform advocates argue that the concerns of district attorneys like Soares should be alleviated by the testimony of DAs in other states with open discovery.

John Schoeffel, staff attorney at the Legal Society of New York, noted that Boston's former DA Daniel Conley told the New York task force in 2012 that his office liked open discovery and was able to protect witnesses. Schoeffel also pointed to the fact that no state has ever broadened discovery and then seen fit to restrict it again.

"It's a one-direction movement nationwide of broader discovery and earlier discovery, and it's worked everywhere else," he said.

Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project, added that earlier discovery is crucial for the roughly 70 percent of New York's jail population who have not been convicted and are being detained pretrial.

"While waiting for prosecutors to turn over evidence, defendants often surrender to pressure to take unfair plea deals and avoid long jail time or harsh prison sentences that could ensue from unfavorable verdicts at trial," she said. "All without knowing whether prosecutors actually possess credible evidence of guilt."

Daily News: Manhattan DA Vance alone among city's district attorneys in referring defendants to ICE

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (at podium) speaks during a press conference on Feb. 14 outside Manhattan Supreme Court calling on Federal I.C.E. agents to not enter New York City courthouses to arrest immigrants. (Jefferson Siegel / New York Daily News)

Daily News | Manhattan DA Vance Alone Among City's District Attorneys in Referring Defendants to ICE

January 14th, 2019 By Stephen Rex Brown

When Justo Santos beat a murder charge in 2014, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance wasn’t done with him — he referred Santos to ICE for possible deportation.

The move, which Vance says is appropriate under “rare and exceptional circumstances,” is unique to his office.

Spokespeople for the city’s other four District Attorneys said they were either unaware of their prosecutors ever referring defendants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or that their offices did not make such referrals as a matter of policy.

Vance only made one referral to ICE last year. His office would not say how many suspects it referred to ICE in 2016 and 2017, but insisted the number was very small.

“In some cases where non-citizen defendants are accused and convicted of very serious crimes, we can and should refer them to ICE for appropriate immigration proceedings,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Agnifilo wrote in an internal memo March 2017. The memo notes that such situations are very rare and should involve supervisors.

The Legal Aid Society, which supports the “abolish ICE” movement, is not pleased with Vance’s policy.

“People think of Manhattan as a progressive bastion, but among the five boroughs it’s only Manhattan’s District Attorney who actively reports New Yorkers to ICE,” said Hasan Shafiqullah, Attorney-In-Charge of the the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit.

“His office tries to justify this practice under the guise of public safety,” Shafiqullah said. “But undermining immigrant communities’ trust in the criminal justice system is really what threatens public safety. DA Vance should follow the lead of New York’s other four DAs in this regard and scrap this policy immediately.”

Prosecutors said Santos had managed to avoid facing justice for the 1986 murder of Inwood restaurant owner Jose Martinez. After the fatal shooting, Santos fled to the Dominican Republic, where he lived under a fake name.

In 2013 the case was reopened thanks to sleuthing by the victim’s daughter, Joselyn Martinez. She discovered that Santos was living in Miami, and authorities arrested him for the cold case murder.

But in 2014, a judge ruled the police and prosecutors violated Santos’s rights by waiting so long to arrest him.

Santos, who argued he acted in self-defense, walked out of the courtroom a free man — but not for long. Vance’s office soon referred Santos to ICE for lying on his citizenship application in 2007.

He was convicted of immigration fraud in Miami in July 2016 for not disclosing his criminal record. The sentence in that case could not be determined and efforts to reach Santos, 48, were unsuccessful. An ICE spokeswoman was on furlough due to the government shutdown.

“He deserved to be deported. He killed a human being,” said Joselyn Martinez, 41.

“I think Cy Vance did the right thing. I don’t have to bump into my dad’s murderer walking down the street.”

Three-term DA Vance has joined other district attorneys and advocates in criticism of ICE, which carries out President Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Vance has called for ICE to stop making arrests inside courthouses — a practice that many say has a chilling effect on the judicial process.

Vance has also advocated for sanctuary city policies, and created an in-house team dedicated to assessing collateral consequences for immigrants facing charges and accepting plea deals.

But last year, Vance’s prosecutors referred a defendant to ICE as a way to get around a judge’s unfavorable ruling. A Vance spokeswoman declined to identify the defendant, but did provide some details about the case.

The defendant, who was awaiting trial for his role in a shooting and gang assault, had his bail reduced on appeal, the spokeswoman said.

Prosecutors believed it was highly likely the man would flee, so Vance’s office requested an “immigration hold” from ICE that would have kept him in custody. The appellate judge’s lower bail order was reversed, the Vance spokeswoman said, so ICE ultimately never had to take the man into custody.

“We are dedicated to protecting the rights of immigrant New Yorkers,” the Vance spokeswoman said.

NYT: Her Autistic Twins Raise a Ruckus, but They’re Also ‘My Joy in Life’

Pharaoh, left, and Phallon Waterman playing at a program for children with autism and other developmental disabilities at the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach.CreditCreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times

Pharaoh, left, and Phallon Waterman playing at a program for children with autism and other developmental disabilities at the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach.CreditCreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times

NY Times | Her Autistic Twins Raise a Ruckus, but They’re Also ‘My Joy in Life’

Jan. 12, 2019

By Corey Kilgannon

Hallway photos in Teisha Waterman’s Brooklyn apartment show her identical twin sons, Pharaoh and Phallon, dressed alike. They are both smiling, cute as two matching buttons.

Around the corner, in the living room, the real boys are less sedate. The cracked television screen is a result of their raucous play sessions. Ms. Waterman keeps the other furnishings in her home spare and durable, to withstand moments of unrestrained behavior.

“If it can be broken, it’s not going to last here,” Ms. Waterman, 41, said with a laugh.

Her sons, age 6, are lovely, playful kids, but because of their severe autism, they also need special attention and parenting support to meet their social and behavioral needs.

The boys were born 26 weeks into her pregnancy, and each weighed less than 2 pounds. Doctors said early on that they had autism, and Ms. Waterman has struggled to get them the services they need, including occupational therapy and specialists to help them eat with utensils and communicate by using gestures.

“Parenting is hard enough,” she said, “but having a child with special needs is 20 times harder.”

Even by age 3, the boys did not respond to their names or other verbal communication, from their mother or between themselves. Only recently have they begun to acknowledge each other and play together.

Interacting with other children remains problematic. At the playground, Ms. Waterman must often intervene, and offer apologies or explanations for awkward behavior from the boys.

Pharaoh is prone to tantrums that can include hitting himself, screaming and ramming into his mother.

“If a child asks his name, he might just start jumping up and down,” Ms. Waterman said. “Kids and parents don’t know how to respond. Some parents aren’t compassionate. They don’t understand.”

The boys also are liable to bolt into the street and simply keep running, she said, so she must hold them tightly. She avoids playgrounds with more than one entrance and must tends the exit closely.

“They have no sense of fear,” said Ms. Waterman, who raises the boys along with their father, her longtime companion.

Even with both parents’ salaries, after covering the monthly rent of $1,100, plus utilities and other expenses, the parents are barely able to cover the many out-of-pocket expenses related to the boys’ care, including behavior analyses and therapy critical for children with autism spectrum disorder.

The summer camp at the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn has become vital to them. Its services include special programs and services for children with autism and developmental disabilities, including swimming, trampolines and sensory integration.

The Shorefront Y is a beneficiary agency of UJA Federation of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

When Ms. Waterman was unable to afford camp fees last summer, $1,260 from The Neediest Cases Fund covered part of the cost.

“They can’t go to a mainstream summer camp — it’s too dangerous for them to be in groups with 12 kids to one counselor,” said Ms. Waterman, who has been frustrated by delays in New York State’s developmental disabilities services.

After more than a year of delays in processing her sons’ applications, she said, she finally sought help from the Legal Aid Society’s health law unit, which has helped her make progress.

Ms. Waterman grew up in Brooklyn and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She worked in the Bronx district attorney’s office as a community associate, largely documenting police officers’ testimony.

She found the job so upsetting that she eventually quit. She has worked at several Manhattan law firms and now works as a legal coordinator for Beam Living, a management company for the Stuyvesant Town residential complex in Manhattan.

To keep the job, she must pay for after-school programs for her sons, she said.

As strenuous as it can be, she said she is buoyed by the boys’ compassion and affection.

“I love my sons more than I love myself,” she said. “My joy in life comes from being able to teach them and letting them explore and learn and become upstanding citizens in society.”

NYTimes: How Does Bail Work, and Why Do People Want to Get Rid of It?

Bail bondsmen like Eduardo Guilarte, of BailNYC, guarantee bail payments for people who can’t afford to pay them, and then take a percentage from their clients as a fee.CreditCreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

NY Times | How Does Bail Work, and Why Do People Want to Get Rid of It?

Jan. 11, 2019

By Alex Traub

In 2017, around 33,000 criminal defendants in New York couldn’t post bail at their initial hearing. They went straight from a courthouse to jail simply because they were poor.

States such as New Jersey, Arizona, and California have all recently adopted new rules eliminating or sharply curtailing the use of cash bail. The New York government could pass its own bill as soon as this spring. Advocates for criminal justice reform say that ending the bail system would help curb mass incarceration.

Abolishing bail, however, raises the question of whether additional measures to detain criminal defendants will be needed. In a news conference last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the criminal justice system needs not only “reform” but also “tightening up,” particularly through allowing judges to consider a defendant’s level of “dangerousness” before granting bail.

In response, a dozen advocacy groups, such as the Legal Aid Society, released a statement accusing the mayor of attempting to “derail essential reforms to New York’s bail and parole release systems and to reverse progress made toward the decarceration of New York’s jails and prisons.”

How bail works

After they are arrested, criminal defendants ordinarily see a judge within 24 hours. Judges have a number of choices for determining what happens next.

The most lenient option is releasing defendants with a promise to return for their trial. The severest is ordering defendants, if they are deemed a flight risk, to be detained in jail until a trial verdict or plea deal.

Bail provides a middle path: Defendants remain free but face the threat of a financial penalty.

Setting bail

New York judges can choose from nine different types of bail, some of which require no upfront payment. Typically, however, judges favor cash bail, which calls for immediate payment to the court. If the court’s requirements are met, the bail money is returned to whoever put it up.

Judges weigh a variety of factors, including the financial resources of the accused and the recommendation of prosecutors.

Wealthy defendants can afford to pay the amount directly — Harvey Weinstein, for instance, had his lawyer hand over a cashier’s check worth $1 million during his arraignment.

The role of the bondsman

Those who cannot afford bail must choose between jail and reliance on a commercial bail bondsman. Under New York law, bondsmen can charge a fee of up to 10 percent for bail set under $3,000 and only six percent for any amount above $10,000.

The bondsman keeps this payment regardless of the outcome of the case. This compensates for the risk taken by sponsoring an accused criminal — since if that person doesn’t show up to court, the bondsman must fork over his or her bail to the government.

The problem with bail

The most fundamental criticism of the bail system is that it needlessly imprisons poor people. In 2010, when he was 16, Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack and released on $3,000 bail, which his family could not afford. Mr. Browder spent nearly three years in jail on Rikers Island waiting for trial before the charges against him were dismissed. In 2015, he committed suicide.

“Whether you’re in jail for three days, three weeks, three months or three years, it’s an accelerator of human misery,” said Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of New York State’s highest court and currently the chairman of an independent commission on criminal justice reform. “You come out a changed human being.”

The bondsman business

New York bondsmen are more tightly regulated than those in other states, but they have been accused of failing to return collateral and charging illegal fees to their generally poor clientele. Last year, the Department of Consumer Affairs accused the bondsman Marvin Morgan of circumventing industry rules. For one thing, he charged up to $1,000 for courier costs. Mr. Morgan lost his bondsman license.

Eduardo Guilarte, founder of BailNYC on Baxter Street, said that criticisms of the bail bond industry are a “smokescreen” for deeper social issues, and that bondsmen fulfill a unique duty at no cost to taxpayers.

“For the system to work, it has to matter to somebody,” Mr. Guilarte said. “When a defendant doesn’t show up, it matters to me, because I have to write that check right then and there. ” No one will have such an incentive to find accused criminals skipping court if reform measures eliminate bondsmen, he argued.

Changing the law

Politicians used to back Mr. Guilarte’s views. Just last year, the Republican-controlled New York State Senate declined to move a measure passed by Democrats in the Assembly to do away with cash bail for many crimes.

But Democrats now control the Senate. The new deputy majority leader, Michael Gianaris, has sponsored a bill that would eliminate cash bail. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, says eliminating cash bail is one of his top priorities.

“I’ve never seen this much momentum, which leaves me very optimistic,” Mr. Gianaris said. He added that eliminating bail could be part of a criminal-justice-reform package to be passed along with the state budget by March 31. “But on this issue more than most, it’s critical that we do it right.” So bail is abolished. Then what?

The California government recently passed a law replacing cash bail with a new system, known as risk assessment, which has divided advocates of reform.

The new law creates levels of risk based on likelihood to show up in court and threat to the public, with some defendants guaranteed time in jail before their case is decided. Since these judgments are based on criminal history, and the criminal justice system has been riddled with bias, “risk assessments are inherently bringing forward that racism and that discrimination,” said Tina Luongo, the chief criminal defender of the Legal Aid Society. She compared this to Mr. de Blasio’s suggestion about judges determining “dangerousness.”

Alternatives to bail

In March 2016, New York implemented a citywide program called supervised release. It resembles parole: in lieu of jailing people who cannot post bail, a judge can let them go free on the condition that they agree to meet with a social worker one to four times a month and maintain regular phone contact with that person until the outcome of their case.

Other initiatives that sidestep bail include problem-solving courts and diversion programs. They replace fines and jail with programs that help defendants, such as drug treatment, and mandatory community service.

Bail would also become less of a problem if judges simply used alternatives to cash bail already on the books, Ms. Luongo explained. For instance, judges can make bail conditional on defendants first missing a court date.

Asked if meaningful change could happen within the system as it stands, Ms. Luongo replied, “Yes. Tomorrow.”