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Projects, Units & Initiatives

Adolescent Defense

The Legal Aid Society represents youth who have been arrested and face charges in both Family Court and Criminal Court in all five boroughs in New York City. Our staff represent youth from the precinct to the court house. We are committed to providing our clients with continuous, comprehensive, and zealous representation.

A Specialized Approach

Lawyers who represent teenagers charged with crimes bear responsibility for pushing the system—at all points along the continuum of a case–to provide age-appropriate responses. It is for this reason that the Legal Aid Society, the largest public defender office in the country, provides specialized representation for teenagers prosecuted in Criminal Court and Family Court. Our specialized practice grew out of a recognition that the fundamental developmental differences between adolescents and adults demand a specific, tailored expertise and approach to legal representation. Our multi-pronged approach to representing youth consists of individual, interdisciplinary case representation, city and state policy and legislative advocacy, and advocacy with administrative agencies. The Legal Aid Society’s role as the primary defender in New York City provides us with a unique ability to track trends and categories of need in the adolescent population across the City. A key to our success in case outcomes for young clients lies in the fact that courtroom advocacy is only one piece of our representational model.

The Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project (AID) represents teenagers ages thirteen to eighteen charged in the adult court system in New York City. Our Juvenile Defense Teams in Family Court represent youth charged with juvenile delinquency. These specialized teams, comprised of specially trained lawyers, social workers, and investigators, provide legal representation as well as education, foster care, and mental health and policy advocacy in all five boroughs.

We begin fact investigation early in the life of a case: conducting crime scene investigations, interviewing witnesses, researching legal strategies, and hiring experts. We represent our clients in pre-trial hearings and at trial, where our clients are contesting the charges or we cannot negotiate a favorable case outcome. Early casework is a critical feature of representing youth, since multiple court appearances interfere with clients’ school attendance and their parents’ work schedules. This approach facilitates early resolution of cases, including dismissal, which has significant benefits for clients.

In addition to early casework to develop all possible theories of a legal defense, the defense team gathers relevant information about the client’s strengths and needs. This aids in the prompt referral for services and solutions the client and client’s family may have been seeking but could not obtain, such as substance abuse or mental health treatment, special education services, after-school programming, or a more appropriate school setting. As a result, we are able to develop a service plan, providing wide ranging benefits: it creates a plan that can be presented to the court to support applications for release, it allows the client to demonstrate that he or she is amenable to treatment or services, it can stabilize family dynamics, and it can be utilized in negotiations for disposition.

In Raise the Age cases, a team of Family Court and Criminal Court lawyers and social workers represent youth under the age of 18 charged with felonies in the Youth Part of Supreme Court. The Adolescent Intervention and Diversion (AID) team litigates the issues addressing removal to Family Court and stays on to represent those youth whose cases remain in the Youth Part. The AID team works with an array of community based and therapeutic providers to connect our clients to services while pursuing litigation or negotiated outcomes which have resulted in widely recognized positive outcomes in Criminal Court and high rates of removals to Family Court. Our Juvenile Defense teams provide seamless, high quality representation for those youth whose cases are removed to Family Court. Our attorneys and social workers play an active role from arraignment through the final resolution of the case in both court settings.

In an effort to facilitate the adjustment (diversion) process and to enhance the prospects of a case being adjusted before a youth sees a judge in Family Court, we offer skilled legal advocacy, client counseling, and necessary support. Early engagement, advocacy and expertise matter. For example, after removal from the youth part in Criminal Court, YD’s case was referred to Corporation Counsel for filing in Family Court. However, before the case was filed, through the initiative of the interdisciplinary adolescent defense team, his attorney and social worker were successful in getting his case referred back to probation for adjustment prior to a filing in Family Court. As a result of their work, efforts to set up services and arrange for a school transfer led to a successful adjustment of YD’s case

In addition to direct client representation, our adolescent defense experts, in collaboration with our Special Litigation Units, actively engage in policy and legislative work on the City and State level. We played an active role in the passage of the Raise the Age legislation and the NYC Student Safety Act. We regularly engage in policy conversations addressing court-involved adolescents, mental health services for youth and families, the educational needs of court-involved youth, incarceration conditions for young people and the school to prison pipeline.

COVID-19 Response

From the moment the pandemic hit and the Family Court and Criminal Court shifted to virtual appearances, our lawyers, social workers, paralegals and investigators made all of the transitions necessary to ensure that our clients continued to receive the same extraordinary quality of representation. In order to do so, adjustments were made in staffing and staff scheduling, a more sophisticated use of technology and a remarkable resourcefulness in making sure that we continued to be able to “meet” and communicate with clients whenever necessary. Investigations, witness interviews and motion practice have continued.

In an effort to maintain quality of representation, our teams initiated meetings with all of the other Family and Criminal Court stakeholders to address the systemic changes brought about by COVID. While the Family Courts have focused on only the most serious cases, JRP has continued to advocate for all of its clients as well as addressing concerns on behalf of youth who have been arrested during the shutdown but are still waiting for their cases to be filed and thus have not yet been appointed counsel.  Because the Youth Parts in Criminal Court have been deemed essential during the crisis, arraignments, referrals to services and the removal process have continued to be addressed by our staff.

In conjunction with The Legal Aid Society’s special litigation units, multiple writs were brought on behalf of incarcerated clients in ACS custody and NYC Department of Correction custody response to dangerous conditions arising from the corona virus. These writs met with varying success in court, but also served as an effective tool to pressure prosecutors to consent to the release of clients. In addition to the filing of writs, we engaged in case specific advocacy that led to the release of clients with cases pending in the Criminal and Family Courts. The writ and other advocacy created pressure which led to the release of most of the youth held on juvenile delinquency cases and led to improvements in conditions in the juvenile detention centers.

Set the Record Straight

Despite Family Court protections, at times former clients are required to disclose Juvenile Delinquency arrests and adjudications for employment and educational opportunities. Set the Record Straight (STRS) is a Juvenile Rights Practice post-disposition project designed to ensure that youth arrested for juvenile delinquencies and youth removed to Family Court from Criminal Court do not face unlawful discrimination by employers, schools, or law enforcement agencies due to their juvenile delinquency arrests or dispositions. STRS: (1) assists clients with clearing complicated arrest histories, (2) files motions to seal records in Family Court; (3) counsels youth on confidentiality, sealing and expungement laws to enable youth to access higher education and to enter the job market free from unlawful discrimination; and (4) advocates for legislation and policies that strengthen confidentiality, sealing and expungement. Given the advent of Raise the Age and the concurrent increase in removal cases, STRS is poised to assist clients whose cases have been removed to and are disposed of in the Family Court.

STRS’ work is invaluable to former clients like KB. KB was denied employment by the Department of Education because it found two open 2007 juvenile offender arrests, both of which had never even been filed in any court and should have been sealed many years earlier, on his fingerprint report (aka RAP sheet). KB has never been convicted or adjudicated delinquent for any crime. After many unsuccessful attempts to resolve this matter on his own by contacting the Family Court, the Criminal Court and the District Attorney’s office, KB was referred to the Juvenile Rights Practice (JRP) for assistance. JRP determined that both of these juvenile arrests were sealed and in fact had not been prosecuted. Through the persistent advocacy of the attorney, NYS Division of Criminal Justice Service sealed both arrests and destroyed KB’s fingerprints, freeing him to pursue his employment aspirations.

Our Impact

The experience of our clients reveals the quality of our representation. ER, a 15 year old adolescent who came to the attention of the court via a delinquency docket presented as a cognitively challenged youth who was in a District 75 school and was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Our team utilized an expert to assist in our representation of ER, an approach we regularly use with great success. The team retained a psychologist to assess ER’s cognitive capacity. In an effort to preserve his parole status, the JRP attorney, social workers, and educational advocate ensured that ER was in the appropriate mental health services and worked with the Department of Education to obtain the appropriate school placement. The paralegal served as a translator and also gathered records so that the team could examine all relevant history and plan accordingly. As result of the team’s hard work, the attorney was able to effectively litigate this case and obtain a pre-fact finding Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal and get ER the appropriate educational placement and services.

When a crossover case is filed in family court, JRP represents the client on the child welfare case as well as the juvenile delinquency case, the Juvenile Rights team has extensive knowledge of the law and practice on both matters. That knowledge base is critical at all stages of these matters that often are pending simultaneously. Our representation of AS, a client who had dual contact with Family Court, demonstrated exceptional skill, and knowledge of the two systems. When AS was arrested for serious assault charges at about that same time the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) filed a neglect petition against her mother and removed her from her mother’s care. Our team, a social worker and an attorney, met with our client in the hospital prior to any formal charges filed in Family Court and developed a plan consistent with her position. We referred her to a program that provided intensive in-home services to youth and their families. We advocated with her treatment team to develop a thoughtful plan for continued outpatient care and we filed a motion for an emergency hearing to return AS to her mother’s home. Additionally, ACS consented to a parole of AS based on the services our team expertly set up in a very short period of time. AS remained in her home and engaged in the intensive services during the pendency of both cases and in a short period of time both cases were favorably resolved.

AB is a 16-year-old client who suffers from developmental disabilities and has been in foster care for many years. He was charged with a robbery in the second degree where a group of older teens took a youth’s backpack and caused injury. It was unclear from the People’s pleadings what role our client played in the offense. The lawyer and social worker arranged for a battery of evaluations and advocated to ensure the appropriate orders and services were in place. Our work influenced the foster care agency to join with defense counsel to argue that his needs could be met in foster care and a more restrictive setting was unnecessary. As a result he was released from Rikers, returned to foster care and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor and dismissed.

Upon learning that our client was being threatened by students at her school on social media, our Adolescent Intervention and Diversion (AID) social worker worked with the client’s high school principal to address the issue, and coordinated efforts to facilitate a safety transfer. JN transferred to the high school of her choice without any difficulty. To address JN’s life stressors, we made referrals for counseling in her community. Our client’s parent reports that treatment and supportive services has had a positive impact on her wellbeing. We also referred JN and her father to Legal Aid’s Civil Practice for help in obtaining alternate housing after the experienced a fire in their home. Her case was resolved without a criminal record and a reduced period of probation after successfully completing a community-based alternative to incarceration program.

ZN, a 16-year-old client came to the AID unit via an emergency call to the mitigation specialist at Arraignment. ZN was arrested due to an altercation with her sister and charged with assault. Client was rendered homeless by the order of protection issued against her, and the judge was unwilling to release a juvenile to homeless services. The AID team was able to secure her release and escorted client to the child protective agency field office. After several hours, the client’s mother agreed to exclude the sister from the home temporarily, while we secured a residential placement with the Department of Education. The client moved to the residential school program shortly thereafter. During the pendency of the case, ZB was excused from traveling back to the city for her court appearances and finally the case was dismissed entirely.