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
Gregory Cerchione, Secretary
Cindi Elibott Giglio, Treasurer
Suprotik Basu, Board Member
Andrea Bonina, Board Member
Robert J. Gunter, Jr., Board Member
Jean Hegler, Board Member
Jeffrey Rona, Board Member
Lisa Schreibersdorf, Board Member and Executive Director


Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is committed to high-quality and zealous representation on behalf of Brooklyn residents facing the criminal, family and immigration justice systems.   As part of this mission, BDS strives to ensure pro bono partnerships leverage resources and provide critical support for our clients in and out of the courtroom to ensure our clients obtain the best result possible in court and, hopefully, a better outcome in their lives.

BDS regularly partners with New York City’s major law firms, corporations and other members of the private bar on numerous cases from all of our practice areas.  Our pro bono partners have worked on individual cases, filed complaints in federal courts, co-authored amicus briefs, co-counseled hearings, filed and argued appeals and conducted research on novel areas of law.  BDS offers pro bono opportunities that not only present ideal opportunities for pro bono attorneys to get real courtroom experience and work with clients in need, but that result in just and better outcomes for our clients.  BDS offers both short- and long-term projects and has flexible co-counseling arrangements. Additionally, we offer comprehensive training programs, mentorship and supervision that will provide a meaningful experience for the pro bono attorney and the client.

Law firms, corporations, law-firm attorneys, and in-house counsel who are interested in joining Brooklyn Defender Services’ pro bono practice, please contact our Pro Bono Counsel Molly Meltzer at mmeltzer@bds.org.

Retired or Transitioning Attorneys interested in pro bono opportunities are welcomed at Brooklyn Defender Services.  Our organization is one of the host organizations of the Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP) established by ex-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2010.  Please visit this website to register for the program http://nycourts.gov/attorneys/volunteer/emeritus/about.shtml and contact Pro Bono Counsel Molly Meltzer at mmeltzer@bds.org.

Individual Volunteers are incorporated into our practices on an as-needed basis.  Please send a resume, particular skills you have that would lend itself to our work and your specific availability to mmeltzer@bds.org.



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.



BDS seeks a passionate individual to advocate for our incarcerated clients in New York City. The ideal candidate will have a social justice background, excellent written advocacy skills, experience working with people who are currently or formerly incarcerated, and a demonstrated commitment to working on behalf of this population. A strong candidate for Jail Services Advocate is comfortable working with a broad range of people including clients and their families, attorneys, agency officials, law enforcement agents, social workers and other advocates.

See full job posting on idealist.org.


BDS seeks a staff attorney for its Family Defense Practice (FDP). FDP represents low-income parents in child welfare and related family court cases in Brooklyn Family Court. Through holistic representation in an interdisciplinary setting, FDP helps families obtain the benefits and services they need to keep their families safe and stable.

See full job posting on Idealist.org.


BDS requires excellent Junior Investigators to assist our attorneys in providing high-quality representation to our clients. The Junior Investigator position is perfect for inquisitive and empathetic people that are dedicated to social and criminal justice issues. Applicants with prior experience may be considered for a position as Investigator.

See full job posting on idealist.org.


The submission deadline for law students and recent law graduates for this year has passed and we are not currently accepting new applications. Please check back in the summer for information regarding our interview schedule for the fall of 2016.

Admitted attorneys with two or more years of litigation experience (criminal law preferred) may still apply on a rolling basis by sending a cover letter and resume to Richard LaFontaine, Esq., Director of Recruiting, 177 Livingston Street, 7th Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201, either by mail or via email to rlafontaine@bds.org.


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.


Law Student 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 lasts ten weeks. 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.

Our law student summer internship 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 defense 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.

Postgraduate Law Fellowships

Brooklyn Defender Services hosts fellows to work in our office on special projects. Each year, we aim to identify law student fellowship applications that meet our mission of serving underprivileged clients in Brooklyn through innovative proposals. These include Equal Justice Works fellowships, Skadden fellows, and Soros fellowships among others. We additionally welcome law students from around the country whose law schools have fellowship placement options, particularly post-graduate fellowships. Those interested in applying for fellowships hosted at BDS should send an email of introduction explaining their proposal to Molly Meltzer at mmeltzer@bds.org.

Investigative Assistant Internships

BDS seeks undergraduates and recent college graduates with an interest in and a commitment to social and criminal justice issues for our Investigative Assistant Internship. 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 some 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. Interns will be provided with unlimited monthly metro cards for the duration of their internship.

To apply, submit a resume and cover letter to Joy Chen at jchen@bds.org with the subject “Investigative Assistant Application.” Please specify which cycle you will be applying to work for and if you will be working full or part time (ex: Summer 2016, full time). 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.



September 21, 2016

BDS’ Rebecca Kinsella, Youth Social Worker, Testifies before the New York City Council on Family Engagement for New York City’s Detained Youth (PDF )

September 15, 2016

BDS’ Anca Grigore, Civil Justice Practice Staff Attorney, Testifies before the New York City Council on Civil Forfeiture as Extortion of the Poor  (PDF )

September 14, 2016

BDS Joins 340+ Civil & Human Rights Organizations in Telling DHS: Stop Detaining Immigrants in Private Prisons (PDF )

August 29, 2016

BDS Joins Nine Other Organizations in Opposing DOC’s Plan to End the Transgender Housing Unit in City Jails  (PDF )

June 28, 2016

BDS’ Letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo Requesting His Signature on Gravity Knife Reform Legislation (PDF )

Check out our infographic on gravity knives, “Why Are Carpenters Being arrested for Carrying Their Tools?”  here.

June 23, 2016

Improving Access to Criminal Courts, Compliance with the ADA — Riley Doyle Evans Testifies at City Council (PDF )

June 2, 2016

Andrea Nieves Testifies Before the New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues in Support of Legislation Requiring DOC to Provide Free Feminine Hygiene Products in City Jails (PDF )

May 26, 2016

Reentry Specialist Wesley Caines testifies on RAP sheet errors and court record accuracy at oversight hearing of the New York City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services (PDF )

May 26, 2016

Jail Services Coordinator Riley Doyle Evans testifies on correctional healthcare before the New York City Council Committees on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Health, and Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services (PDF )

May 3, 2016

BDS Reentry Specialist Wesley Caines testifies before the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations (PDF )

April 6, 2016

BDS Memos in Support of Two Bills to Decriminalize Possession of Common Workers’ Utility Knives (A4821/S3675 PDF ) (A9042/S6483 PDF )

Check out our infographic on gravity knives, “Why Are Carpenters Being arrested for Carrying Their Tools?”  here.

April 5, 2016

Testimony of Nyasa Hickey at NY City Council Committee on Immigration Hearing on Resolution 928A-2015 (PDF )

March 28, 2016

Testimony of Nyasa Hickey at NY City Council Committee on Immigration Budget Hearing (PDF )

Testimony of Samuel David Flores Murillo at NY City Council Immigration Committee Budget and NYIFUP Hearing (English) (PDF )

Testimonio de David Flores Murillo – NY City Council Immigration Committee Budget and NYIFUP Hearing (Spanish) (PDF )

March 23, 2016

Testimony of Lisa Schreibersdorf at NY City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services  Preliminary Budget Hearing (PDF )

March 21, 2016

BDS Testifies at City Human Rights Commission Hearing on Proposed Rules Changes (PDF )

March 1, 2016

BDS Releases Statement in Support of Kalief’s Law (S5988A/A8296A) (PDF )

February 29, 2016

BDS Testifies at New York City Council Courts and Legal Services Hearing Examining Speedy Trial in New York City Courts (PDF )

February 4, 2016

BDS Testifies Submits Testimony to Council on DOE’s Support for Students who are Homeless or in Temporary Housing (PDF )

January 25, 2016

BDS Testifies Before Council on Proposed Changes to Enforcement of Quality of Life Offenses (PDF )

January 12, 2016

BDS Testifies Before NYPD on Proposed Rules for U Visa Certification Requests (PDF )

December 15, 2015

BDS Testifies Before Council on Need to Reform NYCHA’s Permanent Exclusion Policy (PDF )

BDS Testifies Before Council Hearing on Abuse and Mistreatment of Women in City Jails (PDF )

December 9, 2015
BDS’ Katherine Russell, Esq. and Amy Albert, Esq. Testify on the Need for More Resources for Unaccompanied Minors (PDF )

December 4, 2015
BDS Testifies Before NYC Council Hearing on Intro 958 – Client Satisfaction Survey (PDF )

November 6, 2015
Supplemental BDS Testimony before NYC Board of Corrections Opposing Jail Visiting Restrictions and Rollback of Solitary Confinement Reforms (PDF )

October 19, 2015
BDS Testifies Before NYC Council Hearing on the Impacts of Court Obstacles and Overcriminalization on Immigrants (PDF )

Clarence Threlkeld, BDS Immigration Client, Testifies Before City Council About His Courthouse Arrest by ICE (PDF )

October 16, 2015
BDS Response to Discriminatory Department of Correction Plan to Restrict Visiting and Packages and to Rollback Solitary Confinement Reforms

October 13, 2015
BDS Testifies at NYC Board of Correction Hearing on the Department of Correction’s New Policy on Uniforms for People in City Jails (PDF )

October 1, 2015
BDS Testifies at NYC Council Committee on Juvenile Justice Oversight Hearing on Examining ACS’s Juvenile Offender Population (PDF )

September 18, 2015
BDS Testifies at NYC Council Oversight Hearing on the Effectiveness of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (PDF )

BDS Testifies before the NYC Council Committee on Veterans on Int. 793 – In relation to creating a taskforce to study veterans in the criminal justice system (PDF )

August 18, 2015
BDS Expresses Strong Support for Kalief’s Law (S. 5988/A. 7841) to Ensure Swifter Resolution for Defendants (PDF )

June 17, 2015
BDS Testifies at NYC Council Oversight Hearing on New York’s Bail System and the Need for Reform (PDF )

June 12, 2015
Memo of Support for A2699/ S5593 & A2990/S2029 to Seal Certain Criminal Convictions and “Ban the Box” on Job Applications (PDF )

May 7, 2015
BDS Testifies before NYS Assembly on Criminal Justice Reform (PDF )

May 6, 2015
BDS Testifies at NYC Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services Hearing on DOC Reporting Bills (PDF )

Riley Doyle Evans, BDS’ Jail Services Coordinator, Testifies before the New York City Council on the Need for Behavioral Health Screening in City Jails (PDF )

BDS Calls for Provision of “Connections” guidebook to All DOC Detainees Upon Intake at NYC Council Committee on Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Hearing (PDF )

April 23, 2015
Memo of Support for S.3675/A.4821 to End the Criminalization of So-Called “Gravity Knives” (PDF )

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

Letter to NYS Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Legislation Expanding Unconstitutional, Counterproductive Sex Offender Exclusions (PDF )

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

December 9, 2014
Sergio Jimenez, Director of BDS’ Civil Justice Practice, Testifies before the NYS Assembly Hearing on Civil Forfeiture (PDF )

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.






Rebecca Kinsella – Youth Social Worker 



Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice

Oversight Hearing


Examining Family Engagement for New York City’s Detained and Placed Youth

September 21, 2016


My name is Rebecca Kinsella. I am a youth social worker at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice and Chair Fernando Cabrera for the opportunity to testify today about the many ways that the City Council can foster engagement between detained youth and their families.

Brooklyn Defender Services’ has a specialized adolescent unit, called the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team, or BART. Our team represents over two thousand adolescents ages 13-21 annually. In the past five years, BART has represented over 150 youth ages 13-15 charged with JO offenses, many of whom are detained in ACS facilities pre-trial. My caseload includes adolescents detained at Crossroads, an ACS detention facility in Brooklyn, as well as young people detained on Rikers Island. While ACS offers family days on weekends that have gone a long way in promoting family engagement, there is still more that they could be doing to limit the harm to youth in their custody. If the City Council is truly committed to protecting court-involved youth, they must act to move 16- and 17-year-olds off of Rikers Island as quickly as possible to limit the pervasive violence that harms detained youth and their families who visit them.


J is a 15-year-old client charged under the Juvenile Offender statute in Kings County Supreme Court. For the past 17 months, he has been detained at Crossroads in Brooklyn. While he awaits trial or disposition of his case, J has been very active in school and has made the most of the programming that is provided at Crossroads. Many staff have acknowledged his growth and increased maturity since arriving at Crossroads. However, J’s mother has several other young children, making it difficult for her to visit regularly. Crossroads staff reported to me that they have seen J fall into a depression because he rarely has visits from his family. While J’s mother wants to be a support to her son during this extremely trying time in his life, her caregiving responsibilities and economic challenges limit her ability to visit him at Crossroads. ACS, with the City’s support, can and should do more to promote family engagement to ensure that J and his mother and siblings continue to reconnect to limit tension and instability when he eventually returns home.

Family engagement during detention is critical to minimize harm to youth and the family upon reentry to the home. We represent many young people in adult court who return home from juvenile detention without sufficient support and are quickly re-arrested because of fights in the home. When the youth arrives in arraignments, DAs ask for and judges frequently issue an order of protection, preventing the youth from returning home, effectively making him or her homeless. According to Covenant House, 50% of adolescents aging out of foster care and the juvenile and criminal justice systems will be homeless within six months. When youth are kicked out of the home or ordered out of the home by a judge they have very few options because many are unprepared to live independently, have limited education and no social support. This leads to couch surfing, repeated shelter visits, trading labor or sex for a place to stay, and all too often, another round of criminal justice involvement.

Parental and family engagement by the juvenile justice system is proven to be effective for better youth outcomes. A National Academy of Sciences report cited evidence that a relationship with a parent or other adult figure can have a positive impact on an adolescent, serving as a protective buffer against external negative influences. Other research has shown that family visitation for youth is associated with better behavior and improved academic performance. And it is clear that most families want to play a bigger role: in a survey of family members, 86 percent said they wanted to be more involved in their children’s treatment while they were incarcerated (Justice for Families, 2012).[1]

This hearing and any successfully implemented recommendations that come out of it will not only foster family engagement but may have the additional effect of preventing future criminal justice involvement and youth homelessness, ultimately keeping our communities and our young people safe.

Family Engagement at Crossroads and Horizons

BDS represents youth detained at Crossroads in Brooklyn and other ACS, OCFS, DOC and DOCCS facilities across the City and State. While Crossroads makes more concerted efforts to ensure family engagement than “adult” facilities, there remain many areas for improvement.

Problem 1: Restrictions on who may visit limit opportunities for family engagement.

Families in the twenty-first century often include parents, caregivers and siblings who may not be blood relatives. Yet ACS’ visitation policies do not always take these realities into account. For example, siblings are not allowed to visit Crossroads without a birth certificate and the parent that accompanies the sibling must be a biological parent. These rules make visiting difficult for many loved ones. A parent who does not have a birth certificate for a young child will be turned away from the visit when they fail to bring the birth certificate or are forced to find childcare. Siblings who miss their brother or sister are unable to visit unless the parent that accompanies them is a biological one. These rules have the adverse effect of limiting family engagement and harming young people who need the support of their loved ones while they are incarcerated.

Solution: The City should call upon ACS to allow people to define their own families without requiring the presentation of birth certificate or the presence of a biological parent. The City should also fund childcare during visiting hours so that parents can bring young siblings to the facility.

Problem 2: Visiting times are limited and inaccessible for many parents.

As noted above, many of our client’s parents and loved ones have other children in the home that they are supporting. Requiring parents to take time off work or away from the home is a significant barrier for many parents who live paycheck to paycheck or who have caretaking responsibilities.

Solution: The City Council should require ACS to offer a greater variety of visiting times to accommodate parent work or caregiving schedules.

Problem 3: Crossroads is far from the subway and other public transportation.

Public transportation in East New York is limited and infrequent. This makes traveling to Crossroads difficult for parents who are negotiating work and childcare obligations.

Solution: The City should both improve transportation options in East New York and should also fund a van or shuttle system that could pick parents up at their homes or central neighborhood locations (like libraries) and take them to Crossroads, Horizons and Rikers.

Problem 4: Lack of privacy during visits and phone calls

Visiting rooms at both Crossroads and Horizons are large and parents meet when their children without any privacy. Caseworkers allow youth to call their parents or guardians for 10, 20 or 30-minute intervals, depending on their behavior. However, calls are not private. This lack of privacy negatively affects family relationships because, often times, neither parent nor child feels like they may speak candidly.  This also discourages open conversations about the case and plea offers, leaving adolescents forced to choose between discussing the private details of their case in a public space or in front of their caseworkers, or making life changing decisions on their own without family support.

Solution: ACS should work with defenders and other stakeholders to determine how to allow youth and their parents private opportunities to speak to discuss their case and other confidential concerns.

These concerns aside, I want to acknowledge and ask the Council to support ACS in continuing family days on weekends. On family days, siblings and parents are invited to the facility to spend the day with their loved one on site and engage in special programming that may involve food, games or art. A recent family day at Crossroads involved the presentation of a mural that the young people had painted.  Family days provide an important opportunity for youth, their parents and their siblings to celebrate the adolescents successes and reconnect as a family.

Family Engagement at Rikers Island

The youth that I represent on Rikers Island are no different from their younger peers in ACS facilities, except that they face significantly more trauma while awaiting their trials on Rikers.

Problem 5: Young people on Rikers face sexual assault and violence on a daily basis.

Pre-trial detention at Rikers Island has a devastating effect on youth and their families. The horrors that youth experience on Rikers Island are well-documented, and include physical and sexual abuse, estrangement from their families because of the barriers to phone calls and visits, and limited educational and programming opportunities. [2]

Solution: The City Council should ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are removed from Rikers Island and transferred to ACS facilities as soon as possible. ACS facilities do a better job of protecting young people in their custody than youth detained in NYC Department of Corrections facilities. In BDS’s experience, youth in ACS detention facilities have better access to programming, are better able to maintain relationships with their families, and suffer less abuse at the hands of facility staff and other young people.

Mayor Bill De Blasio announced in July that the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice has a plan to move the 200 16- and 17-year-olds currently on Rikers to Horizon Juvenile Center within four years and at a cost of $300 million.[3]  We believe that the timeline and proposed cost are grossly overestimated and urge the City Council to work with the Administration to move the young people to ACS facilities more quickly.

Problem 6: Parents face sexual assault and violence when they attempt to visit their children at Rikers.

Visiting Rikers is nothing short of a nightmare. Rikers guards regularly sexually assault our clients’ family members. They are subject to strip searching and body cavity searches. Just last week NBC 4 I-Team reported on 25 women who have come forward alleging that correction officers at NYC jails abused them when they came for visits.[4] Many parents travel for hours, enduring the humiliation of searches and only to arrive at Rikers to learn that their child will not be allowed to see them that day or that the facility is on lockdown.

Solution: City Council should work with the Board of Corrections and the NYC Department of Corrections to ensure that these unlawful and abhorrent practices cease immediately. In the longer run, the Council should work with the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, along with other stakeholders such as defender offices, to shut down Rikers Island as quickly as possible and divert people from DOC facilities as they await resolution of their cases.


The challenges facing court-involved youth are immense. City Council efforts to support family engagement during incarceration would go a long way in supporting our young people, making our communities stronger and safer and preventing youth homelessness.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. We are grateful to the Council for bringing to light the issues the barriers that separate detained youth and their families.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 362) or rkinsella@bds.org.


[1] Vera Institute of Justice, “Family Engagement in the Juvenile Justice System,” available at http://archive.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/family-engagement-juvenile-justice.pdf.

[2] See, e.g., Legal Aid Society, Testimony of Nancy Ginsburg before the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and Committee on Juvenile Justice, Oct. 8, 2014, available at http://www.legal-aid.org/media/189855/testimony_10.8.14.pdf (detailing abuse and trauma perpetrated against youth detained on Rikers Island).

[3] William Neuman, “New York City wants to move 160 and 17-year-olds from Rikers Jail to Bronx Center,” N.Y. Times, July 20, 2016, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/nyregion/rikers-jail-youths-bronx-center.html?_r=0.

[4] NBC 4, “I-Team: More than 25 women allege sex abuse by correction officers at NYC jails,” Sept. 15, 2016, available at http://www.nbcnewyork.com/investigations/Rikers-Island-Sex-Abuse-Correction-Officer-Lawsuit-Claim-Investigation-Department-Correction-393576031.html.



Please join us for our 20th Anniversary Benefit Gala at the landmark Williamsburgh Savings Bank building (Weylin B. Seymour Event Space) located at 175 Broadway in Brooklyn.

Details about our honorees and special guests will be forthcoming. 

Buy tickets online here.

Learn more about sponsorship options here.

For purchases by check, please send payment along with the ticket and sponsorship purchase form to:

Brooklyn Defender Services
Attn: Daniel Ball
180 Livingston Street, Suite 300
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Questions about Brooklyn Defender Services’s Benefit Gala 2016?

Email events@bds.org or call Daniel Ball, BDS Development Associate, at (347) 592-2579.



For Immediate Release:
Wednesday, September 14, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than 340 immigrant rights, faith-based and civil- and labor-rights organizations delivered a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson Wednesday calling for the government to end its use of private prison companies to detain immigrants.

In the letter, advocates reject Secretary Johnson’s plan to review DHS’s use of private contractors,  citing years of studies exposing the human rights violations and lack of accountability that plague the for-profit immigration detention system. Instead, the letter calls for the secretary to create a plan to end DHS’s entanglement with private prison companies.

“It is already clear that DHS must follow the lead of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in severing ties with private prison contractors,” the letter states, referencing the DOJ’s announcement in August that the Bureau of Prisons would no longer contract with private prison companies. Advocates call for the immediate closure of the most dangerous and mismanaged immigration detention facilities, and for DHS to freeze any requests for information, requests for proposals, solicitations and contract renewals for detention facilities.

“DHS’s reliance on private prison companies has enabled an enormous expansion of this country’s detention system over the past decade, promoting enforcement and deportation policies that target communities of color,” said Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. “We’re seeing the consequences in immigrant communities where families are torn apart and asylum-seekers are punished for seeking safety, and in detention centers, which have become sites of rampant human rights violations and abuse.”

“Even when DHS knows there are serious problems at private detention centers, it continues to send immigrants to be held in unsafe conditions rather than terminate the facilities’ contracts or even penalize the detention center operators,” said Mary Meg McCarthy of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “It is reprehensible that private companies are allowed to operate with such impunity, and profit at the expense of immigrants’ basic health and welfare.”

Private prison companies operate about 73 percent of U.S. detention beds that hold immigrants, including some of the most expensive contracts in a system that costs taxpayers approximately $2 billion each year. A recent Washington Post investigation found that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) receives $20 million per month to detain women and children at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, regardless of how many people actually are in the facility’s custody.

Privately operated detention centers, including CCA facilities, have repeatedly been sites of abuse and mistreatment. Recent reports from DWN, NIJC and other organizations have exposed how DHS’s ineffective inspections system consistently fails to identify and correct problems at these facilities, even when those problems contribute to preventable in-custody deaths.

Advocates acknowledge that ending DHS’s relationship with private prison companies will require the government to significantly decrease the number of people who are needlessly detained each year. Ending the reliance on private prisons should not result in an increase in the use of state or county jails for immigration detention. Instead, ICE should “start by reversing recent policy changes that have driven up detention numbers, including the expansion of family detention and the insistence on detaining many asylum-seekers,” the letter states.

Download the letter


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visitwww.detentionwatchnetwork.org. Follow @DetentionWatch.

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. Visit immigrantjustice.org. Follow @NIJC.



(Photo credit: Victor Chu, Freelance NYDN)

The unfair attack on fare evasion: Rather than pulling out all stops to collect every last dime from the indigent, the city should make it easier for low-income New Yorkers to ride subways and buses

Monday, August 29, 2016, 5:00 AM

A recent audit by New York State Controller Thomas DiNapoli faulted the cash-strapped MTA for failing to collect nearly half of the fines and fees associated with violations of transit rules, noting that the Authority “needs every dollar it can get to improve subway service.”

Importantly, 90% of these fines are the result of tickets for fare-evasion. The audit leaves unaddressed the larger question of whether public transit should be funded in this manner, on the backs of New Yorkers unable to afford the rising fares but still needing to move about the city for work or other appointments.

Likewise, the audit neglects to question whether fines, which increased to $100 in 2008, went unpaid because people who skip out on $2.75 might not be able to afford them.

Consider some recent clients at Brooklyn Defender Services:

Mr. M, an Army veteran, was stopped on his way to a job interview. Mr. W was homeless, and his shelter did not provide MetroCards. Mr. R was on his way to get his public assistance restored after an error by the Human Resources Administration resulted in a suspension of his benefits.

All of these individuals were arrested for fare evasion, detained overnight, and churned through the criminal arraignment process. All of them are black and indigent.




On July 23rd BDS family defense attorney Wendy Cheng (third from right) presented on a panel with Judge Lillian Wan of Brooklyn Family Court and Lana Yang, an attorney with the Administration of Children’s Services, hosted by the Chinese American Social Services Center. The event focused on explaining the process and procedures of Family Court to new immigrants from China. Information about family court and child neglect proceedings are hard to come by in many immigrant communities, who experience different legal systems and cultural norms in their home countries. Language access creates a major barrier to people learning, and affirming their rights. BDS’s Family Defense Practice has recently translated our “Know Your Rights” materials into Mandarin Chinese. Approximately 50 community members attended this event, and a second panel is being organized as a follow-up.