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Projects, Units & Initiatives

Criminal Defense Law Reform and Special Litigation Unit

The Law Reform and Special Litigation Unit of the Criminal Defense Practice engages in affirmative litigation and policy advocacy on systemic legal issues affecting the rights of Legal Aid’s criminal defense clients. The knowledgeable and experienced members of the Unit have developed ground-breaking impact litigation and innovative legislative initiatives touching on every aspect of criminal justice, from police misconduct to prisoner’s rights, and from bail reform to parole reform. In all our work, we center the experiences of our clients and seek to empower them to fight back against systemic barriers to justice. The Unit also houses several strategic initiatives designed to address the unmet needs of people whose lives have been affected by the criminal legal system.

In recent months, the Unit led the Legal Aid Society’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York City, filing dozens of emergency cases seeking the release of medically vulnerable people following the severe, uncontrolled outbreak of the deadly pandemic on Riker’s Island. The Unit succeeded in securing the release of hundreds of people whose disabilities and medical conditions risked transforming pre-trial detention into a death sentence.

The Unit also led the Legal Aid Society’s response to the brutal crackdown on protests against the NYPD’s long history of police harassment and abuse that erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Our team launched a hotline and clinic to support protesters with legal advice and assistance on criminal charges relating to protest activity and on how to hold police officers accountable for wrongful arrests and excessive force.

Strategic Litigation

The Unit’s practice includes both individual and class action litigation designed to remedy systemic problems in the criminal legal system. In the 1990s, the Unit litigated In re Rountree, the case that established the right to have a judge review a criminal charge within twenty-four hours of an arrest. Our team also litigated Davis v. The City of New York and New York City Housing Authority, a groundbreaking class action regarding unconstitutional and racially discriminating stops, searches and arrests in public housing, that substantially altered the way public housing was policed and continues to subject the NYPD to monitoring of its practices to this day.

Our team also litigated Jane Doe v. The City of New York, the first case to expose rape and sexual abuse by correctional staff at Riker’s Island; Krimstock v. Kelly, which established the due process rights of people who have their automobiles impounded by the City of New York; and Doe v. Pataki, which established the right of people convicted of sex offenses to have a fair hearing to accurately determine the “risk level” that sets obligations for ongoing registration and public notification of their status.

Learn more about our current casework on The Legal Aid Society litigation docket.

Policy Advocacy

The Unit leads the Legal Aid Society’s policy and legislative work on issues relating to criminal justice in both the New York State legislature and the New York City Council. Our team regularly comments on policy proposals, provides testimony to the state and city legislatures, and engages in coalition-building with civil society groups, fellow defender organizations, community groups and other stakeholders to ensure that the rights of our clients are respected and their needs are met.

Strategic Legal Initiatives

In addition, to engaging in strategic litigation and policy advocacy, the Law Reform and Strategic Litigation Unit houses several initiatives designed to address unmet needs of Legal Aid’s criminal defense clients. Those initiatives include:

The Decarceration Project fights to make pre-trial detention, commonly referred to as bail, the exception, not the rule, by working alongside public defenders in all five boroughs to ensure as many of our clients return to their communities after arrest as possible and fighting for systemic policy changes that reduce the City’s over-reliance on pre-trial incarceration. More information about the Decarceration Project can be found here.

The Cop Accountability Project empowers organizations and communities across New York City to hold police officers accountable for human rights violations by maintaining a database of police misconduct that supports defenders and civil rights lawyers in efforts to combat misconduct and advocating for greater transparency and accountability for police harassment and abuse. More information about the Cop Accountability Project can be found here.

The Case Closed Project assists people in obtaining orders sealing and expunging their historic criminal records so they are no longer barred from job opportunities, denied basic government benefits, prevented from securing affordable housing, or live under the weight of institutional and personal discrimination. More information about the Case Closed Initiative can be found here.

The Rikers Writ Court Initiative provides legal representation to almost all people held in City custody who seek to appeal disciplinary infractions resulting in sentences to punitive segregation or loss of good time credit. In addition, the initiative often challenges classification decisions that result in people being placed in restraints, losing contact visits, or being labeled as a gang member or contraband recipient while they are incarcerated.