The Legal Aid Society and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) announced funding today that will expand the Society’s specialized pre-trial detention work – through its Decarceration Project - to service New Yorkers in all five boroughs.
The Society formed the Decarceration Project in June 2016 to reduce and eventually eliminate the unnecessary incarceration of anyone due to inability to pay bail.
Since its inception, the Decarceration Project has been helping Society clients challenge unfair bail and navigate the complexities of the broken money bail system. The Project is the first of its kind nationwide, and it aims to shift how public defenders confront pretrial detention through direct litigation, and driving systemic change with education and legislative advocacy.
In March 2017, Decarceration Project staff designed an innovative model for litigation to directly aid Society clients and staff attorneys while fueling systemic change. The idea was simple: if bail means clients are 34% more likely to be convicted, scarce resources must be relocated to the earliest point in the clients' case to focus on getting clients released and back to the community.
As a pilot, the Decarceration Project provided bail specialists — attorneys, social workers, and support staff —to a group of thirty attorneys at Legal Aid’s Manhattan trial office to see if the increased litigation capacity could secure clients release and drive down detention rates.
Some of the pilot’s major successes include:
- Over 140 clients were serviced during the Pilot.
- Almost half were released on their own recognizance and ultimately able to post bail or have bail posted by a bail fund, or saw their case dismissed.
- The pilot brought legal challenges to excessive bail sets for 60 clients which resulted in the release of 20 of those clients, or 33 percent went home - they either were released or had bail lowered to an amount that their families could afford.
- A designated social worker was involved in 65 clients’ cases, 37% of whom were released.
Specifically, the $860,000 in funding will support the hiring of five attorneys and a supervising attorney to handle bail cases in all five boroughs. Services include bail reviews, bail applications, writs of habeas corpus and appeals. Social services are also part of the program and include connecting clients with family and other community ties, personal history reviews, matching clients with supportive programming and referring cases to bail funds (charities that post bail for people charged with misdemeanors where bail is $2,000 or less).
“By having a dedicated team of attorneys, social workers and paralegals focusing all their efforts and resources on getting people released from pretrial incarceration, the Decarceration Project has changed lives,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Our judicial system is centered on the presumption of innocence and we are fighting to make sure that this bedrock principle is guaranteed to everyone, not just the those who can afford their freedom. We look forward to expanding these services citywide to benefit our clients and their families.
“Public defenders fight tirelessly to make our criminal justice system fairer and more just. I applaud the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Legal Aid Society. Boosting resources for defenders is crucial if we are to realize the dream of closing Rikers and ending the abuse and neglect that it symbolizes,” said Patrick Gaspard, President of the Open Society Foundation.