The sixth amendment of the United States Constitution gives every person charged with a crime the right to an attorney. People who are unable to afford an attorney are provided one free of charge. This is the primary function of Brooklyn Defender Services.
In Brooklyn, there are approximately 100,000 arrests per year. BDS represents about 40% of the total people arrested in Brooklyn. About 15% of those cases are felony charges, meaning that the person is accused of a serious matter such as robbery or burglary. In such cases, BDS attorneys interview the client to determine if he or she may be innocent or have a defense to the charges. We investigate and follow up every lead our clients provide. We also work to achieve release from jail for our clients while the charges are pending. Attorneys pursue legal issues that can work to the client’s benefit and attempt to negotiate a plea bargain that will be advantageous for the client, particularly in cases where the client does not have a defense and committed the act he or she is charged with. In many cases, even in such a situation, the client is eligible for drug or mental health treatment rather than a jail sentence. Other social issues may be apparent, such as: our client was a veteran, or was a victim of domestic violence or other trauma. Our many social workers help our clients by identifying issues that are not related to the case itself, but to the person who was arrested. Attorneys use this information to pursue better options for their clients.
Eighty-five percent of our clients are charged with misdemeanor offenses, meaning that the charges are a crime but not the most serious type of crime. Such charges include shoplifting, marijuana possession, trespassing and assaults (like bar fights). In such cases, BDS attorneys work hard to pursue any legal or factual defense the clients may have, including by interviewing witnesses, as with felony matters. However, with less serious matters, much of the damage to the client’s life can come in the form of collateral consequences. For example, a person can face deportation, even if they only had a misdemeanor charge. People living in public housing can face eviction. Many clients have very low paying jobs and face termination for missing even one day of work or for getting a conviction. Some cases even threaten a parent’s right to keep their child or a person’s right to return to their home.
BDS provides many resources to address these other issues because, in our experience, such matters are more harmful to our clients than the impact the criminal charge itself. In addition, the impact of these types of disenfranchising consequences to large numbers of people in small areas of Brooklyn such as Brownsville or East New York also profoundly impacts those communities.
BDS’s clients reflect the demographics of the criminal justice system in which a majority of the people arrested are people of color. Twenty-four percent of our clients — about 10,000 — are youth under 21 years of age and at least 15% live in public or Section 8 housing. About 17% of BDS’s clients—7,600 per year—are non-citizens.
Specialized UnitsFor many of BDS’s clients, poverty, trauma, mental illness, and alcohol or drug abuse are the driving forces behind their involvement in the criminal or family systems. In order to address the unique needs and barriers many of our clients face, BDS has a number of dedicated and specialized units which provide targeted services to adolescents, clients with mental illness, victims of trafficking, veterans and clients with overlapping criminal and family court issues.
Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team BDS’s integrated adolescent representation team is comprised of ten attorneys working together with an educational attorney and a specialized team of social workers and advocates.
Family/Criminal Integrated Team In 2002, BDS received funding from the City Council to initiate a pilot program in which BDS represented clients with pending criminal matters in their related Family Court proceedings. This was highly beneficial for the clients who were able to have one attorney fully familiar with the facts and circumstances of both cases, and could execute a coordinated legal strategy. For BDS, this allowed us to expand our legal and support services to the clients’ broader needs in a coherent and cost-effective manner. In 2007, the Integrated Domestic Violence (IDV) Court was created to bring related Family, Criminal, and Matrimonial cases to a single judge who hears all aspects of a case. With the creation of this specialized court, BDS’s Family attorneys were able to transfer their expertise and experience to serving clients in the IDV court where they represent more than 400 clients per year.
Trafficking Team Our Trafficking Team is made up of experienced criminal defense attorneys who specialize in understanding and identifying the complexities related to human trafficking. They represent BDS’s clients in Brooklyn’s Human Trafficking Intervention Part, and are skilled in identifying collateral social and legal service needs – including issues of immigration, safety and trauma. Working closely with social workers, immigration attorneys, interpreters and other service providers, our trafficking attorneys seek to minimize the punitive nature of criminal justice contact and provide meaningful services for victims of trafficking who find themselves facing criminal charges.
Mental Health Team Brooklyn Defender Services represents many clients who have a diagnosed mental illness. Two specialized attorneys with dedicated social work support represent some clients. Our specialized attorneys represent mentally ill clients at competency evaluations, hearings and other court appearances during the pendency of their case. It is also part of our mission to insure that these clients not only receive a fair and just disposition but also the best care and treatment possible. Research has proven that clients with a mentally illness who are offered an opportunity to participate in mental health courts are significantly less likely to get re-arrested than similar offenders with mental illness who experience traditional court processing.
Brooklyn Defender Services played an important role in the development and launch of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court over 10 years ago. Brooklyn Mental Health Court serves as the model for treatment courts all over the world.