177 Livingston Street 7th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 254-0700 info@bds.org



The mission of Brooklyn Defender Services is to provide high quality legal representation and related services to people who cannot afford to retain an attorney.

Brooklyn Defender Services is a public defender organization that represents 45,000 people each year who are too poor to afford an attorney. Our staff consists of specialized attorneys, social workers, investigators, paralegals and administrative staff who are experts in their individual fields.

Our staff are highly qualified and specially trained to provide excellent legal representation to people charged with a crime or facing child welfare proceedings. Every client receives the services needed to defend his or her case, including an investigator to track down witnesses or recover evidence, a social worker to improve the life circumstances of our client and an excellent attorney who will analyze the legal issues in the case, try to negotiate a fair resolution of the matter and will represent the client at a trial.

BDS has many services for our clients on-site, including civil legal advocacy, such as assistance with educational needs of our clients or their children, housing and benefits advocacy and immigration advice and representation.

People who are arrested face many obstacles, even if their case was resolved in their favor. Some examples are loss of employment, suspension from school, eviction from public or private housing, deportation, forfeiture of property and loss of licenses. Our goal is to help clients with these issues as they arise. We also work to change these systems by challenging their legality and advocating for changes in the law.

Each year, there are 100,000 arrests in Brooklyn. Eighty-five percent of these arrests are for misdemeanors or a non-criminal offense. Ninety percent of the people arrested cannot afford an attorney. Brooklyn Defender Services staffs the court so that every person has an attorney as soon as they see the judge.

One thousand families each year get a similar benefit—they too have an attorney waiting in the courtroom to help them on the very day that proceedings are filed for removal of their children.

Many of our clients are people with a mental illness. Many of our clients are under the age of 18. A growing number are veterans facing difficulties in returning home. A large portion are suffering with drug addiction or alcoholism. It is only through a zealous voice advocating for those unable to speak for themselves that justice is done. BDS is that voice.


  • Criminal Defense

  • Family Defense

  • Immigration

  • Civil Justice

  • Special Projects


Our primary mission at BDS is to represent people facing serious accusations from the government. We recognize that our clients face many additional challenges and obstacles related to their poverty. As the largest Brooklyn-based legal services provider, BDS’s interdisciplinary staff provides supplemental legal and social services on site to our clients, including immigration attorneys, housing attorneys, an education attorney and social workers who specialize in areas such as mental health and youth advocacy.


Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project

Brooklyn Justice Corps

Brooklyn Justice Initiatives

Brownsville Community Justice Center

Center for Community Alternatives

Good Shepherd Services

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Pinkerton Fellows at John Jay College of Criminal Justice



In 1996, Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) was selected by the City of New York to become the first borough-specific indigent defense office to handle the cases of poor people arrested in Brooklyn. At that time, BDS represented 10,000 clients each year. In the ensuing years, BDS has established itself as a nationally known public defender office that provides extensive services to the poor community in Brooklyn. BDS employs a large staff of highly dedicated and vibrant attorneys, social workers, investigators and support personnel who work on matters of utmost urgency for the clients we represent—our core public defense practice consists of criminal, family and immigration defense for people facing the dire consequences of imprisonment, loss of their children or deportation.

Originally, BDS represented 10% of the people charged with crimes in Brooklyn. It has since grown to 45%. Our family defense practice handles approximately 80% of the cases of parents facing allegations of abuse or neglect. With the addition of immigration, housing, education and other legal services, BDS has become the largest one-stop legal office for poor people in Brooklyn.

  • 1996 Awarded New Indigent Defense Contract; 10,000 cases funded by Criminal Justice Coordinator’s Office (first time a new institutional defender added to Brooklyn criminal courts)
  • 2001 Adds specialized mental health practice — funded by the Open Society Institute and Van Ameringen Foundation
  • 2002 Works with the Fortune Society to provide Family Court services to ex-offenders
  • 2003 Adds crossover criminal/family practice with funding from New York City Council
  • 2006 Grows from handling 10% of indigent defense case to 20%.
  • 2008 Begins immigration practice
  • 2010 Creates Haitian Immigration Legal Assistance Program in collaboration with local bar associations, a pro bono project later funded by New York Community Trust
  • 2011 Creates and chairs Brooklyn’s multi-agency Racial Justice Task Force — funded by the American Bar Association and the United States Bureau of Justice Assistance
  • 2012 Incorporates Family Defense contract from Legal Services of New York City
  • 2013 Brooklyn Defender Services creates first-in-nation public defense program for detained immigrants
  • 2014 Adds Housing, Benefits and Education Units to Civil Justice Practice
  • 2014 Begins Jail-Based Services Project


Kevin Snover, Chairman of the Board
Jeffrey Rona, Treasurer
Anne Shields, Board Member
Jean Hegler, Board Member
Gregory Cerchione, Board Member
Lisa Schreibersdorf, Board Member and Executive Director


Partnerships between public and private attorneys are essential to meet the needs of poor people in Brooklyn. Coordinated by our Pro Bono Counsel, our pro bono program allows private attorneys to work on cases in a variety of ways: representing a client, assisting with impact litigation, and in coordination with the Volunteer Lawyers Project. In addition to professional development, BDS’s pro bono program offers a unique opportunity for attorneys to make an impact in the lives of those most in need of—and with the least access to—quality legal representation.

While zealously advocating on behalf of every individual client, BDS engages in impact litigation and advocacy to reform laws and policies that criminalize poverty and compromise fundamental rights to dignity, family security, and economic opportunity. For example, with pro bono law firm partners, BDS has established a Bail Fund to help clients with low-level misdemeanor charges pay bail and avoid the often devastating consequences of pre-trial detention.

Our community lawyering initiative mobilizes volunteer attorneys, law students and community groups to respond to emerging legal needs in the broader community. In partnership with the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, BDS hosts community legal clinics to assist undocumented Haitian New Yorkers obtain for Temporary Protected Status, and to assist young people or “DREAMers” register for deferred deportation and work authorization.

If you are interested in partnering with BDS on a pro bono matter, please contact Sarah Nolan, Pro Bono Counsel at snolan@bds.org or 718-254-0700 ext. 148.


September 2014

A BDS investigator was recently out on an investigation on the street in Crown Heights talking to a likely witness/friend of a client who wasn’t really warming up to him.   The witness/friend wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t very forthcoming either.  As the investigator was trying to finesse some more information out of the witness, he noticed someone approach the house from behind him.  The investigator turned toward the person and they made eye contact.

It was “Mr. Johnson,” a former client, and he broke out into the biggest smile and acted like the investigator was an old friend.  The guy he had been talking to immediately started telling the investigator more, interrupted by the two of them talking about how good Brooklyn Defender Services is, how many people they know whom we’ve helped.  “Mr. Johnson” told the other guy that BDS had helped him beat all four counts he faced [he was acquitted of the charges against him].  As a result of this encounter, our current client’s friend/witness gave the investigator his full name and number, said of course he’d try to help us out, since we had helped his friend, and asked for a few more cards to give to anyone who might be able to share more information.

It was a great moment, and now a current client of ours will be better served because of the work we did for “Mr. Johnson” and others.



If you are a Brooklyn resident and cannot afford an attorney, BDS will provide free advice.

In fear of being arrested? Call 718-254-0700 and ask for the operator.

In fear of having your children removed? Call 347-592-2500.



Immigration Practice Litigation Support – Administrative Assistant Position Job Description

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) seeks a full-time Administrative Assistant to work with our attorneys and other professional staff to challenge the deportation of our noncitizen clients and secure immigration benefits on their behalf.

BDS is one of the largest public defense providers in the United States. We represent more than 43,000 clients per year in a variety of legal proceedings in New York City, primarily indigent criminal, family, and immigration defense. We believe all people—regardless of economic means—deserve respect, individualized care, and the fullest extent of legal protections whether accused of a crime or facing a civil legal obstacle to justice and opportunity.

Our Immigration Practice is comprised of a staff of eighteen attorneys, five BIA accredited representatives, and two administrative assistants. We advise our criminal defense colleagues and help devise strategies to minimize the immigration impact of our clients’ criminal proceedings. We help clients apply for citizenship, greencards, visas for domestic violence or trafficking victims, and other immigration benefits. Finally, we have a robust removal defense practice; we secure our immigrant clients’ release from immigration detention and defend them against deportation, arguing in immigration court for a finding of non-deportability, and applying for Cancellation of Removal, Adjustment of Status, and other discretionary waivers of deportation based on favorable factors in our clients’ lives. Most recently, since November 2013 BDS has been serving as assigned counsel under the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project—a first-in-nation program that provides legal representation for indigent New Yorkers in detained removal proceedings at the Varick Street Immigration Courts and in New Jersey.
• Handling and screening messages and correspondence for the Immigration Practice (phone calls, mail, messages from clients and their families);
• Scheduling meetings between Immigration Practice members and others (including clients and other BDS staff);
• Keeping track of Immigration Practice members’ individual calendars as well as the Practice’s shared calendar to assist in the Practice’s time-management;
• Maintaining information in our case management system;
• Organizing and maintaining files;
• Drafting meeting agendas, letters, emails, memos; photocopying client files;
• Photocopying and otherwise assisting in the preparation of client applications for immigration benefits;
• Ordering and retrieving criminal history, medical, tax, and other records;
• Filing documents with criminal, immigration, and family courts; and
• Providing additional support to Immigration Practice professionals as needed.
• Strong writing and verbal skills, required
• Associate Degree or 2 years of finished college courses required
• At least two years of prior office experience required, preferably in a law office
• Computer literacy (Windows environment), Microsoft office, and good knowledge of the Internet, required
• Demonstrated commitment to social justice and interest in immigrant rights or public interest legal work
• Must be able to multi-task and work as part of a team
• Must be able to exercise sound judgment, be highly organized and detail-oriented, and possess strong time-management skills
• Excellent interpersonal skills and an ability to remain calm under pressure
• Bilingual in Spanish and English, preferred

To Apply:
Please email a cover letter, resume and list of three references to Toni Butler at tbutler@bds.org. Include “BDS Immigration Practice Assistant” in the subject line.
Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Submission by Monday, May 11 at 9:00 am, however, is highly encouraged.
Salary will be commensurate with experience and qualifications and within the parameters of BDS’s compensation scale.


BDS is one of the largest public defense providers in the United States. We represent more than 43,000 clients per year in a variety of legal proceedings in New York City, primarily indigent criminal, family, and immigration defense. BDS represents clients who have diverse, complex and multi-faceted needs in a high volume and very fast-paced setting.

Brief Description of Job:
An experienced social worker to team up with attorneys that provide comprehensive legal representation to youth age 14 to 21 with misdemeanor and felony charges.

Applicants must have a Masters Degree in Social Work and be licensed or become licensed within 6 months of starting the position. Applicants must be flexible with work schedule and willing to work as part of a team in a fast-paced environment. Strong candidates possess excellent writing, interpersonal, analytical, and organizational skills.

Social workers assist in determining case strategy by providing both written and oral advocacy seeking alternatives to incarceration for adolescent clients. Additional duties include conducting client assessments, providing crisis intervention, making field visits to detention centers, clients’ homes, and community programs, referring clients for services, and communicating with service providers about client needs.
Salary and benefits are determined based on years and level of experience.

How to Apply: Please send resume, cover letter, and writing sample, to Ronald Schneider at rschneider@bds.org. Please include social work position in the subject line.

Languages (if applicable): Preference will be given to applicants who have experience working in forensic settings. Bilingual Spanish and/or Creole social workers are strongly encouraged to apply.

BDS is an equal opportunity employer which supports a policy of non-discrimination in all employment practices including, but not limited to, hiring, transfer, promotions, training, compensation, benefits, lay-offs, and terminations.


Brooklyn Defender Services is an interdisciplinary law office that represents over 40,000 indigent clients arrested each year with specialized legal services for young clients and those with immigration issues.

The Criminal Defense Practice represents clients who are facing both misdemeanor and felony cases in Brooklyn Supreme and Criminal Courts. BDS advocates for clients who have diverse, complex and multi-faceted needs in a very fast-paced setting. BDS seeks an energetic social worker to become an integral part of the criminal defense team to advocate for clients, both in and out of court.

Social workers team up with attorneys to provide comprehensive legal representation and to determine case strategy to criminally involved clients. Social workers provide both written and oral advocacy for clients. In addition they conduct client assessments, provide crisis intervention, develop service plans, refer clients for services, communicate with service providers about clients’ needs, and conduct visits to incarcerated individuals.

Qualifications: Applicants must have a Masters Degree in Social Work with, at least, two years of social work experience. In addition, applicants must be licensed or willing, and eligible, to become licensed within two years of hire date. Strong writing skills are a must for this position. Applicants must also be willing to work as part of a team in a very fast-paced environment and need to possess excellent writing, interpersonal, analytical, and organizational skills. Strong preference will be given to applicants who have experience working in forensic settings. Bi-lingual social workers are strongly encouraged to apply.
Salary and benefits are determined based on years and level of experience. Please send resume and cover letter to Alicia White at awhite@bds.org. Please include social work position in the subject line.

Only those candidates selected for interviews will be contacted.
Brooklyn Defender Services is an equal opportunity employer and considers all applications without regard to race, color, religion, creed, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, age, disability, socio-economic status, marital or veteran status, or sexual orientation.


BDS Immigration Practice Summer 2015 Internship Announcement

Description and Responsibilities:
The Immigration Practice of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) seeks summer 2015 law student interns. BDS is a public defender organization representing clients in charged with criminal offenses in Brooklyn.

The initial focus of the Immigration Practice is to advise noncitizen clients of the immigration consequences of their criminal cases. Immigration Practice attorneys work in close collaboration with BDS defenders to avoid or minimize the negative immigration consequences of their noncitizens’ criminal cases. In a limited number of cases, immigration practice attorneys continue to advocate for BDS clients in the immigration system even after the criminal case is disposed. We advocate against our clients’ immigration detention, defend them in immigration removal proceedings, and provide assistance applying for immigration benefits.

In addition, BDS is part of the New York Family Unity Project. This city-funded project is the first of its kind in the United States. BDS immigration attorneys provide counsel to indigent individuals at Varick Street Immigration Court using a model similar to the system in New York City’s criminal courts. BDS immigration attorneys staff this project, providing ongoing representation to clients facing immigration detention and deportation on a wide array of applications and other advocacy efforts.

Finally the immigration unit provides limited community based lawyering clinics for Brooklyn residents. In the past, this has included Temporary Protected Status application assistance for Haitian nationals and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“Dream Act”) application assistance. Over the summer 2015 may also include some lawyering clinics for applications based on the November 20, 2014 Obama Administration Executive Action for Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (“DAPA”).

Immigration Practice interns will be incorporated into the broad work of the practice, working with multiple attorneys according to interest and need.

We seek dynamic individuals currently enrolled in law school with a demonstrated commitment to defending immigrants accused and/or convicted of crimes. Applicants should have a strong substantive background in immigrant rights, criminal justice, and/or social justice issues. Applicants should also possess the ability to perform nuanced legal research and writing, to communicate clearly and effectively with clients, and to be a team player.

All internships are volunteer positions. However, BDS will work with students to secure funding from outside sources or class credits where available.

Spanish, Mandarin or Russian fluency is preferred but not required.

Application Instructions:
To apply, please send a cover letter, resume, and at least two references to Nyasa Hickey at nhickey@bds.org with the subject line “Summer 2015 Internship.” We will accept applications until January 15, 2013 however, applicants will be interviewed and decisions made on a rolling basis.


BDS Criminal Defense Practice will be interviewing third year law students this fall for full-time post-graduate positions that would begin in September 2015. Our interviewers will meet with candidates at the law schools and job fairs listed below. All interested candidates who are currently attending one of the law schools we will be visiting must apply for an interview through their institution’s on-campus interviewing (OCI) Symplicity system. Students who are not attending one of the schools listed below should apply to be interviewed via one of the three job fairs. Interested law graduates and admitted attorneys may apply to be interviewed in our Brooklyn office by submitting a cover letter and resume only during the submission period, October 20th 2014 to November 14th 2014.

Due to the large number of inquiries we receive and the small number of openings we anticipate, resumes submitted before or after the submission period will not be considered. Submissions should be addressed to Richard LaFontaine, Esq., Director of Recruiting, 177 Livingston Street, 7th Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11021, and may be mailed or sent via email to rlafontaine@bds.org

Harvard Law School           Sept. 5
Cardozo Law School           Sept. 29
Brooklyn Law School         Sept. 30
Boston University               October 3
Northeastern University  October 6
Fordham Law School         October 15
NYU School of Law             October 15
Hofstra Law School             October 16
St. John’s Law School        October 21
New York Law School       October 22
Touro Law School               October 23
Equal Justice Works           October 24, 25
Howard University             October 27
CUNY Law School               October 28
Columbia University          October 30
Georgetown/GWU              January 24
NYU PILC Fair                    February 5, 6


BDS has a number of employment opportunities available.  Information on specific positions within each practice area is provided, as well as information about how to apply.  The salary of all positions is commensurate on years of experience in accordance with BDS pay scale.

Family Defense Practice Staff Attorney

Job Description:  Brooklyn Defender Services Family Defense Practice (BFDP) seeks a staff attorney to begin immediately. BFDP represents low-income parents in child welfare and related family court cases in Brooklyn Family Court. Through holistic representation in an interdisciplinary setting, BFDP helps families obtain the benefits and services they need to keep their families safe and stable. BFDP also advocates for parents’ due process rights by fighting unwarranted state intervention in their lives. The office also advocates for systemic change in the family court and child welfare systems.

BFDP has a high volume and litigation-focused practice. Attorneys spend most of their days in court and frequently conduct hearings and trials, often on an emergency basis. Staff attorneys are expected to provide high-quality and vigorous representation at all court appearances and throughout the course of a case. Staff attorneys work closely with staff social workers and parent advocates to provide inter-disciplinary representation that includes assistance on related legal matters, such as housing, immigration, public benefits and domestic violence.

Qualifications: Candidates are expected to be admitted to the NYS Bar or awaiting admission and have excellent litigation and written and oral communication skills. Bi-lingual attorneys are encouraged to apply; in particular BFDP seeks Spanish speaking attorneys.

To Apply: Please send a resume and cover letter to jobs.bfdp@bfdp.bds.org including “Staff Attorney” on the subject line.

BDS is an equal opportunity employer which supports a policy of non-discrimination in all employment practices including, but not limited to, hiring, transfer, promotions, training, compensation, benefits, lay-offs, and terminations. BDS takes affirmative action to recruit members of minority groups into their applicant pool.


Criminal Defense Practice Brooklyn Defender Services’ intensive training program is designed for recent law graduates and attorneys who are new to the practice of criminal law in New York. Attorneys spend the first few weeks of their employment at BDS attending in-house lectures on various aspects of criminal defense, shadowing experienced attorneys and practicing their skills through simulations of various aspects of criminal practice.

The Appellate Division has granted us a student practice order which gives us the right to have law students and law graduates working for BDS to appear in court even though they are not yet admitted to practice law. This allows our interns, fellows and recent law graduates to handle cases with supervision.


Summer Internships

BDS has many relationships with local educational institutions, including clinical study programs from New York University Law School (the Offender Re-Entry Clinic, the Family Defense Clinic and the Community Defender Clinic), the Youth Justice Clinic of Cardozo Law School, the Criminal Defense Clinic of St. John’s School of Law and the CUNY Law School Family Law Concentration Clinic.

Brooklyn Defender Services also offers full-time summer internships to law students who have completed their second year of law school and have a commitment to public defense. The internship program is a ten week program. Intern duties may include legal research and writing, representation of clients in arraignments (under supervision), court appearances, client and witness interviews, trial preparation and investigation assistance.

The program is extremely competitive and positions are limited. To apply for a criminal position, please send a cover letter and a resume to Jillian Modzeleski at jmodzeleski@bds.org. If you are interested in a family internship contact Chas Budnick at cbudnick@bfdp.bds.org. If you are interested in an immigration internship contact Nyasa Hickey at nhickey@bds.org. We will accept applications until January 15, 2015.  Selected applicants will be interviewed and decisions made by March 2015.

All internships are volunteer positions. However, BDS will work with students to secure funding from outside sources or class credits where available.

Each year, BDS applies for fellowships for attorneys to work in our office on special projects. This year, we have an 18-month Cardozo Law School Fellow working on the immigration defender project and other short-term fellows working in the family defense practice. If you are interested in a fellowship opportunity speak to Marie Mark at mmark@bds.org.


Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), a progressive legal defense office in Brooklyn, New York, seeks undergraduates and recent college graduates with an interest in and a commitment to social and criminal justice issues for our Investigative Assistant Internship.

BDS is a non-profit public defense office that provides a variety of legal services to indigent clients throughout Brooklyn. BDS represents clients charged with criminal felonies and misdemeanors, as well as family, housing and immigration court matters. Attorneys, social workers and support staff focus on individual clients’ needs.

Our Investigative Assistant Internship pairs interns interested in criminal justice with investigators, who gather evidence critical to BDS’s clients’ cases. Investigators locate, interview and take detailed statements from the witnesses, run background checks on witnesses and police officers, review video surveillance footage, draft and serve subpoenas, photograph and diagram crime scenes, and transcribe audio recordings. Investigative assistants additionally provide administrative assistance to the investigator team.

While some of the investigative assistant’s work will take place in the office, much of it will be out in the field—in private homes, in local businesses, on the street and in the greater community. Ideal applicants should be comfortable working all over Brooklyn and should possess characteristics necessary to approach and interact with strangers about sensitive subjects. Candidates must be able to work in a collaborative setting and be able to produce high-quality written work.

The internship has a rolling admission deadline, and start and end dates can accommodate academic schedules. The internship will start with an intensive, multi-disciplinary two-week training where the interns will rotate shadowing each of our staff investigators. Investigative assistants will learn about our progressive approach to representation, our different practice areas and the laws and ethics involved in investigation. Following the initial training period, investigative assistants will continue to receive ongoing training and supervision from an experienced staff investigator who will serve as a mentor and will be responsible for assigning cases.

Required qualifications and abilities:
– Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
– Interest in criminal justice, especially the fields of criminal defense and the rights of the accused
– Strong writing ability
– Fluency in another language is highly desired, but not required

This internship is unpaid. We strongly encourage interns to apply to grants, fellowships or any other funding available through school or third-party organizations.

To apply, submit a resume and cover letter to Camille Fenton at cfenton@bds.org with the subject “Investigative Assistant Application.” Resumes and cover letters will only be accepted by email; no phone calls, please. If selected for an interview, applicants will be notified on a rolling basis.



April 14, 2015
Keren Farkas, Director of BDS’ Education Unit, Testifies at NYC Council Hearing on School Discipline Reform (PDF )

March 27, 2015
Testimony Before the New York City Council Committee on Courts & Legal Services Preliminary Budget Hearing (PDF )

March 20, 2015
Memo to Legislators: Raise the Age Reform Will Cause Additional Delays in Resolving Child Welfare Cases in Family Court (PDF )

March 17, 2015
Testimony before New York City Council on ACS & DHS Preliminary FY2016 Budget (PDF )

March 3, 2015
BDS’s Jail Services Coordinator Riley Doyle Evans Testifies at the NYC Council Hearing on Healthcare in City Jails

February 25, 2015
BDS’s Veterans Advocacy Specialist Cameron Mease Testifies at the NYC Council Hearing on Veterans Treatment Courts

February 23, 2015
Sergio Jimenez, Housing Unit Director at BDS, joins NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and Advocates to Call for Improved Language Access in Housing Courts

February 10, 2015
BDS Calls for Board of Correction Scrutiny of DOC’s Implementation of New Solitary Rules

December 30, 2014
BDS Sends Open Letter to City, State, & Federal Elected Officials Urging Intervention to Stop DOC’s Expansion of Solitary Confinement through “Enhance Supervision Housing Unit” program

December 19, 2014
BDS testifies at Board of Corrections hearing on Enhanced Supervision Housing

November 13, 2014
BDS’s Lisa Schreibersdorf Speaks to the NYS Assembly on the Fundamental Inappropriateness of Prisons and Jails as Mental Health Treatment

October 8, 2014
BDS Testifies before the NYC Council on (Mis)Treatment of Adolescents in New York City Jails

June 12, 2014
BDS’s Lisa Schreibersdorf Speaks in Support of NYC Council Bill Requiring Public Reporting on DOC’s Use of Solitary Confinement


Brooklyn Defender Services handles approximately 40 percent of the overall criminal cases for the Borough of Brooklyn, making our client profile indicative, if not entirely representational, of the wider law enforcement trends across the city, as they pertain to arrests, custody and court adjudication.



BDS’s Special Litigation Counsel works with BDS defenders and clients, outside counsel and activists, to identify systemic criminal justice deficiencies and constitutional violations that unjustly affect criminal justice outcomes for our clients. Once identified, special litigation lawyers strategically litigate those issues in State and Federal courts to improve both process and outcomes for all accused New Yorkers. From challenging unreasonable bail conditions when a case starts to overbroad barriers to re-entry when it’s over, BDS is striving to make the criminal justice system accountable to those it intends to serve through its growing impact litigation practice.


Brooklyn Defender Services has amassed a wealth of experience and expertise on the complexities that inform our client’s lives and their involvement in the justice system. BDS works with each of the courts and other stakeholders to improve procedures and policies that affect our clients in each of the courts where we are the institutional provider.

As zealous advocates for our clients and the communities we serve, it is also our duty to contribute to the larger conversations taking place within the criminal, family and immigration justice systems in order to facilitate meaningful changes. Through our presence on working groups and coalitions, the use of our external communications, position papers, blog, and other forums we seek to educate system players, legislators and community members about the critical issues facing our clients and give voice to some of New York’s most vulnerable populations.





Keren Farkas, Esq. – Director, Education Unit

My name is Keren Farkas and I am the Director of Brooklyn Defender Services’ (BDS) Education Unit. I thank the New York City Council Committees on Public Safety and Education, and in particular, Chairs Richie J. Torres and Daniel Dromm, for the opportunity to testify on this critical legislation.

BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family and immigration defense to more than 45,000 indigent Brooklyn residents each year. To comprehensively support our clients, a traditionally underserved population, BDS offers supplemental legal and social services in several areas, including social work, housing, benefits, employment and education.

BDS’ Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients. All of our clients are involved with the criminal justice or child welfare systems. A significant percentage is “over-age and under credited,” and have been retained at least one grade. More than half of our clients are classified as students with disabilities. Nearly all of our clients report at least one school suspension, oftentimes between two and six. As a legal and social work team, we work to improve our clients’ access to education. A significant portion of our advocacy relates to school discipline, special education, school reentry from incarceration and suspension, and enrollment in credit recovery and High School Equivalency programs.

BDS supports Int. No. 730 and Int. No. 719, and urges the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to enact them. BDS further requests that Int. No. 719 be amended to include data on Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW).

BDS commends the City Council for its continued attention to policing and discipline practices in our city’s schools and the transparency needed to create fair and thoughtful policies. Since 2011, the Student Safety Act has provided invaluable insight into school practices, revealing an overuse of punitive school discipline with disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities. This oversight has already inspired positive changes. Over the past two years, School Safety Agents (SSA) data showed that school-based arrests and suspensions are declining. Confronted with the SSA data, city agencies, namely the DOE and NYPD, are also investing more resources in school climate reform. BDS is hopeful that the current proposals to strengthen the Student Safety Act and reveal staffing ratios between policing and guidance staff will further support the creation of safe and supportive schools.

As a member of the School Safety Coalition, BDS supports all proposed amendments to the Student Safety Act. The SSA data has offered an important view into school discipline and police practices, but if we want an accurate representation of our school’s practices that is truly capable of informing effective and nondiscriminatory school safety and police practices, these additional disclosures are a vital step. For many of our clients, multiple interruptions in their education due to suspension and the tension associated with the law enforcement presence in their school, including metal detectors, present significant obstacles to school engagement. Knowing, for instance, which schools are suspending students multiple times, inappropriately relying on EMS, using metal detectors and restraints, or experiencing high rates of complaints against SSA will enable families, advocates and policy makers to identify the struggling schools and create responsive policies to support students.

The remainder of my testimony will briefly highlight two areas BDS would like to emphasize as the City Council considers today’s proposals and future policies to support school climate reform.

1. Expanding Behavioral Health Supports at Schools

BDS is encouraged by the proposed expansion of the SSA to include referrals to EMS. Misuse of EMS remains a significant problem for BDS’ school age clients and this data will help stakeholders understand the practice and make responsive policies. With the upcoming Chancellor’s guidance regarding de-escalation plans and investments in training, BDS hopes that schools will be better equipped to respond to student misbehavior. To fully tackle this issue, we also hope the collected data can be used to expand a variety of school-based behavioral health supports.

When speaking with schools, teachers and guidance staff commonly report that they do not feel equipped to support students with challenging behaviors. The result can often include calls, or threats to call, EMS, as well as overuse of punitive discipline, and recommendations for inappropriate and overly restrictive special education settings. In a recent case, a 7 year-old client had been subject to two Superintendents suspension, one EMS call and one threat to call EMS this school year. That student will now be attending a state-approved private school with onsite and integrated behavioral health support staff. In another recent case, our 10-year-old client’s school called EMS twice, and threatened to call EMS on several other occasions. In both examples, the schools lacked the appropriate behavioral health training and support staff to adequately support the students and school staff. Had school-based or school-linked mental health services been available, these students may have received support to remain in the community school, and the trauma, as well as the loss of instruction time, associated with suspension and EMS could have been prevented. Accordingly, we hope these efforts to support positive changes in school climate will include attention to the need for expanded school based mental health clinics, rapid response mobile crisis units, as well as training in trauma informed care.

2. Equipping Schools with the Resources to Support Positive Discipline and Address Complex Student Needs

BDS is pleased with the proposals that will make more information available about the staffing and practices of School Safety Agents. While some of BDS’ school-age clients report positive relationships with SSA’s, they also describe demeaning verbal and physical encounters. Just one month ago, a 17-year old client was physically assaulted by an SSA during lunch period. His school administration viewed the video footage and immediately granted a safety transfer.

We commend the introduction of Int. No. 713 and urge its passage. We believe the collected data will elucidate how our city apportions resources to support student safety and positive school culture. While we applaud the DOE and NYPD’s effort to enhance crisis-intervention training for SSA’s, we want to emphasize that we believe that school disciplinary matters should presumptively be handled by school staff. SSA’s should not be the first-responders to adolescent misbehavior, but that seems to be the practice in many schools. There are too many instances where SSA’s unnecessarily insert themselves in situations. Additionally, school staff can be too quick to call upon SSA’s to intervene. Last fall, an 18-year old client with known mental health needs did not want to speak with a certain school administrator and started to walk away. Seven SSA’s responded. A well-trained educator, guidance counselor or social worker could have more appropriately addressed and deescalated that situation. Another 18 year-old client from last fall had a disagreement with a librarian over whether she could search the website “Craigslist,” which resulted in a “tug-of-war” over an internet cord. Three SSA’s responded and escorted my client to the Assistant Principals’ office. That student was never offered the opportunity to speak with a guidance counselor or a social worker regarding the miscommunication or her reentry following suspension. These examples demonstrate the failed opportunities for positive interventions when schools rely on SSA’s to monitor school discipline rather than trained guidance, social work or clinically trained staff.

Guidance counselors can serve a critical role supporting students and implementing guidance interventions, including restorative practices, as an alternative to punitive discipline. Clinically trained staff, particularly LCSW’s and other school-based mental health clinicians, can serve an additional important role — particularly working with youth who have experienced trauma, which is tragically very common amongst students in our highest-need schools. Beyond supporting individual students, guidance and social work staff can facilitate successful implementation of whole school reform and supporting all staff in the undertaking. To its great credit, last year, the Council passed Int. No. 403-A, requiring, among other things, data on social workers and guidance counselors in each school. We believe that the inclusion of LCSW’s is critical in any effort to shift the school discipline model away from punitive measures and towards care and support. We therefore ask that Int. No. 719 be amended to include data on the ratios of SSA’s to LCSW’s. BDS is hopeful that all of the data collected can be used to help equip our schools with the necessary resources to implement positive discipline systems, and diminish excessive reliance on SSA’s.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.



Great quotes by Keren in the Gotham Gazette who also testified before City Council on this very issue. See below for soundbites and a link at the bottom for full article.

“[Council Member Torres’ bill] gets at the heart of where schools are allocating resources,” said Karen Farkas, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. Farkas deals with issues related to education and counsels students between 16- and 19-years-old.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction in communities and among lawmakers that safety is equated with the presence of safety agents,” she said. “But my clients and students of color don’t equate that with safety. It detracts from a positive community and school culture. It makes it harder for schools to be schools.”

Many of her clients, Farkas said, come from communities that are already over-policed. “Schools should be a place where kids are given the benefit of the doubt, not considered bad or criminal.”

Farkas believes Torres’ bill could reveal the effects that fewer police agents and more positive counseling would have. She also praised the administration’s recent steps for laying the groundwork and initiating discussions on restorative justice practices, whereby instead of being suspended from school, students work to make damaged relationships whole again. But, Farkas insisted that “Unless there’s a whole school reform model, and it’s done well, little piecemeal measures won’t change the whole problem.




Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday proposed limiting the amount of physical contact prisoners can have with visitors in New York City jails and barring some people with a criminal history from visiting altogether.

The changes, aimed at reducing violence in the city’s troubled jail system, sparked criticism from some prisoner-rights advocates who called the policy changes unfair and counterproductive.

“Unless there is a clear, individualized nexus between an individual’s behavior or their visitor’s behavior, it is unjust to take away a contact visit with their loved ones,” she said.

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On February 25, BDS’s Veterans Advocacy Specialist Cameron Mease testified before the New York City Council Committees on Veterans, Courts & Legal Services, and Mental Health in a hearing on Veterans Treatment Courts. As Mease noted in his testimony, such courts provide critical avenues for healing and recovery for our veteran clients, who deserve, for their selfless service to our great nation, compassionate, non-jail, evidence-based treatment interventions. In addition, through this treatment court, many of our clients are connected with VA services and benefits that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives. Ample research, as well as BDS’s direct experience, has demonstrated that people with mental illness do not fare well in jails or prisons. Incarcerated veterans with PTSD or TBI experience severe trauma, as the jail environment is likely to trigger or greatly exacerbate their mental health symptoms. It is our strong belief that special consideration of veterans’ experiences must be integrated into any court proceedings, and that Veterans Treatment Courts are the right venue to ensure that occurs.

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