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




On Friday, September 20, 2019, Brooklyn Defender Services presents Zealous at A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Tickets and sponsorships still available!

Join us for an evening fundraiser with conversation and art organized by public defenders exploring how language and storytelling by those with direct experience can shift the “justice” narrative to help end mass criminalization.

The event will feature a keynote from Rabia Chaudry, an art exhibition and talk by Molly Crabapple, and conversations with Rachel Barkow, Emily Bazelon, Dwayne Betts, Josie Duffy Rice, Scott Hechinger, Andrea James, Raj Jayadev, Soledad O’Brien, Jon Rapping, and Danielle Sered.

Click here for a full rundown of the event.

Proceeds from the event will support local and national, public defender-led campaigns to end mass criminalization.

If you are interested in attending but cannot afford a ticket, please contact Kristine Herman at kherman@bds.org.



For Immediate Release…



With the Heat Index Expected to Reach 111 Degrees Tomorrow, BDS calls on NYC and DOC to Take Emergency Action

(New York, NY) – Today, Kelsey De Avila, Project Director for Jail Services at Brooklyn Defender Services, released the following statement:

“With the scorching heat only threatening to get worse, we are extremely concerned about serious risks to people at Rikers and in other City jails. Most incarcerated people are without air conditioning and the limited number of fans are only in the day rooms, leaving people to swelter, particularly while in their cells. DOC is not providing appropriate summer clothes to many of our clients. People with medical needs have reported feeling nauseous and dizzy. Government has a constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of people in jail. Yet, much like this past winter’s power outage which left people at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center on lockdown without heat and hot water amidst frigid temperatures, DOC is apparently woefully unprepared for this heat wave. We call on Mayor de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann to take immediate action to protect people in the City’s custody from dangerous heat conditions.”



BDS TESTIFIES BEFORE THE NYC COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC SAFETY HEARING ON INTS. 0567-2018, 0635-2018, 1244-2018, 1553-2019, 1548-2019, & T2018-2223, & RES. 0866-2019


Yung-Mi Lee – Supervising Attorney, Criminal Defense Practice

Presented before:

The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety Hearing on

Ints. 0567-2018, 0635-2018, 1244-2018, 1553-2019, 1548-2019, & T2018-2223, & Res. 0866-2019


June 27, 2019

My name is Yung-Mi Lee and I am a Supervising Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank Chairperson Donovan Richards and members of the Committee on Public Safety for holding this hearing on consequential legislation about which we have very serious concerns.

BDS Opposes T2018-2223 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to providing notice to minors included in the criminal groups database

BDS urges the Council not to advance this legislation and meet with advocates and experts working on so-called gang enforcement, including people who have been swept up in raids, public defenders, academics, community members, and others.

On June 13, 2018, my colleague Rebecca Kinsella testified before this Committee on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) so-called gang takedown efforts. In that testimony, BDS called for the abolition of the NYPD’s gang database, or “criminal group database,” which is only the latest form of profile-based policing, or what many call Stop & Frisk 2.0. We also called for a reallocation of resources to fund Cure Violence programs and, more generally, to support rather than profile marginalized families and communities. Instead, T2018-2223, which appears to be well-intended, would entrench gang designations in the law and create an extremely limited and possibly ineffectual process for New Yorkers to determine whether they have been included in this database and, only then, petition to the NYPD to be removed, subject to the complete discretion of the Department which originally included them.

Extremely Limited “Gang Label” Notification Provision

It is possible that, under this legislation, the NYPD would have no greater obligation toward transparency that exists in the status quo. The legislation would require the NYPD to notify New Yorkers who are 17 and under whom they have entered into the gang database “unless providing such notification would compromise an active criminal investigation or the department has specific reason to believe that providing such notification would compromise the health or safety of the minor or another person.” This language is similar to language the NYPD already uses in rejecting FOIL requests regarding placements in the database and the legislation provides for no new avenue to challenge a denial.

Extremely Limited Mechanism to Contest the “Gang Label”

This legislation allows only those who are 17 and under and who have received the aforementioned notice from the NYPD to then contest their gang designation. The NYPD would then have complete discretion to reject the petition, with no evidentiary standard. This provision would create a more narrowly available mechanism of relief than what currently exists under the law, namely filing an Article 78 challenge, which New Yorkers of any age may pursue. There are significant obstacles to successfully challenging one’s gang designation, but they are not overcome by this legislation.

Codifying the Racialized Gang Label

There is currently no definition of a gang in the law. Any definition would very likely be overbroad and discriminatory in its impact, as the term itself is racialized and counter-productive. This legislation would define gangs as “formal or informal” groups of three or more people who commit a crime and, for example, follow the same clothing trends. Given the expansiveness of our criminal legal system, this definition could include nearly anybody, but we know that predominately Black and Latinx people would be targeted, particularly if this definition is later used in sentencing enhancement legislation or additions to the penal law.

The Bigger Picture

Kraig Lewis was living in Connecticut, nine credits away from his MBA. Then he and 119 others were swept up in what law enforcement hailed as the largest gang takedown in New York City history. But he was not actually part of a gang—just one of many fallacies since exposed. Kraig’s story was featured in an April 2019 article and an accompanying documentary in The Intercept, which were released on the same day CUNY School of Law Professor Babe Howell and doctoral student Priscilla Bustamante published a report on the Bronx 120 raid.[1],[2] The article also featured Nicholas Bailey, who had been arrested on robbery charges just after turning 18. The judge in his case gave him a second chance—a diversion program with no jail time—and sealed his case. He thrived for 5 years until federal law enforcement used this sealed case as a predicate to include him in the Bronx 120 raid and prosecution. Then he was sentenced to 6 years in prison. (This raid was conducted jointly by federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and local and state law enforcement.) In both of these cases, and in countless others, young New Yorkers were coerced to plead guilty to felonies, erecting lifelong barriers that will continue to haunt them and their families and communities.

In a press release, federal prosecutors highlighted several murders they linked to the alleged gang members. But, in reality, more than half of the 120 were charged with federal conspiracy based solely on drug offenses—mostly for selling marijuana. Only six were charged in connection with the murders. Also, three people had already been convicted in state court for those murders, one of whom was re-prosecuted in the federal conspiracy case, apparently to give more weight to the broader conspiracy case. In fact, more than half of the people swept up in the “gang raid” were not even alleged by prosecutors to be gang members.

Prior research has found gang allegations nearly exclusively impact Black and Latinx people. Nearly 66% of those added to the NYPD’s gang database between Dec. 2013 and Feb. 2018 were Black and 33% were Latinx.[3] This legislation would require annual reporting of this data. Yet important questions would remain, including: How does one get entered into the database? How does one get out? Do federal agencies, including ICE, have access to this database? Who else is granted access? Most importantly, is there any evidence of the efficacy of this approach? Gang databases engender mass surveillance, extremely harsh treatment in the criminal legal system, and ultimately increased marginalization, which do not improve public safety.

As one resident quoted in The Intercept’s article notes, his community was not the war zone described by law enforcement. Yet violence does occur. That is why communities across the city are developing their own solutions, like Cure Violence programs. That is why New York City must abolish its gang database.

BDS Opposes Int. No. 1244-2018 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to prohibiting certain unsolicited disclosures of intimate images

Certainly, it is inappropriate to ‘Airdrop’ or otherwise send unsolicited intimate images. However, it is our position that the criminalization of this act is more likely to ensnare young people than it is to deter this type of behavior. For those who engage in this behavior, sending Airdrop images may be akin to a prank phone call. For those who receive them, it can be annoying and upsetting, but not so pernicious such that it should be criminalized. Adding this crime will likely lead to racially disparate enforcement and a series of devastating consequences. At a time when we are working towards eliminating minor criminal charges and closing Rikers Island, the New York City Council should not be looking to add or increase criminal charges.  We have learned that creating crimes does not deter behavior and instead destabilizes people’s lives, families and communities. In the alternative, we suggest that the City Council invest in an education campaign to teach people how to change their privacy settings to prevent the receipt of unsolicited images.

BDS Opposes Int. No. 1553-2019 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to prohibiting unfinished frames or receivers

The mere possession of a “piece” of a firearm, such as the receiver of a firearm, is not currently illegal because it is not an “operable” weapon. New York State law is clear that a firearm is not a weapon unless it is operable. This is why every prosecution for Criminal Possession of a Firearm includes an operability test and an operability report, when the firearm is collected. The receiver of a firearm cannot discharge a bullet without the addition of other parts of a firearm. This legislation seeks to prohibit possession of any individual part of a firearm, i.e. “any material that does not constitute the frame or receiver,” which would greatly expand the scope of the law in a manner that criminalizes what could be innocent behavior.

Int. No. 1553 would provide an avenue for the prosecution of New Yorkers in the arena of firearm possession even when what they possess cannot actually be used as such. New Yorkers who possess inoperable firearms, such as relics, antiques, or even broken pieces of firearms would be subject to arrest and prosecution. People are often unaware of the items contained in their basements, storage areas, or even closets, which have been used from one generation to the next.

Lastly, the legislation does not require any specific intent element, such that possession of the receiver or unfinished receiver must be done with the specific intent to produce or manufacture a “Ghost Gun” for it to be illegal. This legislation essentially prohibits and criminalizes the possession of metal. As such we are opposed to Int. No. 1553-2019. We are similarly opposed to the required reporting of police seizure of a “frame or receiver” or “unfinished frame or receiver” in Int. 1548-2019.

BDS Supports Int. 0635-2018 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to prohibiting staged perp walks

There are many ways in which people who are arrested are publicly humiliated during the course of their criminal cases. Their names and faces are printed on the front pages of newspapers distributed across the country, often alongside dehumanizing and hateful headlines. Record sealing following the disposition of their cases cannot undo this harm, even if they are found to be fully innocent. BDS supports this legislation to prohibit staged perp walks, and commends its sponsor, Councilmember Dromm, though we note that its impact will be limited by the broader lack of accountability for police and prosecutors, which must change for this and other protections to be effective.


We thank the Council for the opportunity to speak on these issues and hope you will view BDS as a resource as we continue to work together.

If you have any question, please feel free to reach out to Jared Chausow at jchausow@bds.org.

[1] Alice Speri, The Largest Gang Raid In NYC History Swept Up Dozens Of Young People Who Weren’t In Gangs, The Intercept, Apr. 25, 2019, available at https://theintercept.com/2019/04/25/bronx-120-report-mass-gang-prosecution-rico/.

[2] Professor Babe Howell & Priscilla Bustamante , Report on the Bronx 120 Mass “Gang” Prosecution (CUNY School of Law 2019), available at https://bronx120.report/.

[3] Alice Speri, New York Gang Database Expanded By 70 Percent Under Mayor Bill De Blasio, The Intercept, June 11, 2018, available at https://theintercept.com/2018/06/11/new-york-gang-database-expanded-by-70-percent-under-mayor-bill-de-blasio/.



***For Immediate Release***

June 21, 2019


Daniel Ball, 203-213-9303, dball@bds.org

Joyce McMillan, 917-450-2611, advocateandorganize@gmail.com

The Parent Legislative Action Network Hails Passage of Historic Child Welfare Reform in the New York State Legislature and Urges the Governor to Sign the Bill into Law

A.8060-A/S.6427-A Repairs Broken State Central Register (SCR) and Removes Barriers to Employment for Thousands of Parents Statewide

ALBANY, N.Y. – The Parent Legislative Action Network, made up of affected parents, legal services providers, and non-profit organizations who have lived experiences and/or work with child welfare-involved children and families across New York State, hail the passage of critical reforms to the State Central Register (A.8060A/S.6427A) in the New York State Senate on Tuesday and the New York State Assembly late Thursday. The legislation was introduced in response to calls from advocates and parents in the communities most affected by the child welfare system, in an effort spearheaded by parent activist, Joyce McMillan of PLAN. The coalition thanks Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee for their leadership, and urges Governor Cuomo to sign the bill into law immediately:

“Imposing a sentence of financial insecurities by placing parents on the State Central Register accused of neglect for up to twenty-eight years does not protect children or their families because poverty puts people at risk,” said Joyce McMillan, the We Are Parents Too Coordinator at Sinergia Inc and lead advocate of the Parent Legislative Action Network. “This bill removes these barriers and makes families safer and more secure. I thank Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee for understanding this, and for leading on this issue in the legislature.”

“For too long, the State Central Register, which is intended to help children, has instead unnecessarily hurt children and their families, particularly poor families of color,” said Chris Gottlieb, Co-Director of the NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic. “This SCR reform is a critical improvement in our child welfare system – it will make investigations more fair and ensure that parents’ access to employment opportunity is not hampered by inaccurate and irrelevant records in the SCR.”

“The passage of this legislation brings us one step closer to one of the most important reforms to the child welfare system we have seen in years, breaking barriers to employment that hundreds of thousands of families statewide face because of an unfair and punitive State Central Register,” Lauren Shapiro, Director of Brooklyn Defender Services’ Family Defense Practice. “This is a much needed change to a law that is supposed to help children, but actually hurts families, disproportionately families of color, when there is no child safety concern that even remotely justifies this constraint on their ability to support their families. On behalf of New York’s families and the many advocates who worked tirelessly on this issue, I thank Senator Montgomery and Assemblymember Jaffee for their leadership, and urge the governor to sign A.8060-A/S.6427-A.”

“For decades, New York has erected irrational immovable barriers to employment for families surveilled by ACS,” said Jessica Prince, staff attorney with the Family Defense Practice at the Bronx Defenders. “This legislation is a solid step towards removing these barriers faced by parents from historically marginalized communities.”

“These monumental changes to the State Central Register will change lives for the better for thousands of families across New York State for many years to come,” said Michelle Burrell, Managing Attorney of Neighborhood Defender Service’s Family Defense Practice. “These changes will not only strengthen the fundamental rights of parents and children, but they will also begin to chip away at the unnecessary and punitive stigma the State Central Register inflicted upon our clients for decades.”

“The passage of S6426-A/A8060-A is a critical step forward in an ongoing effort to safeguard employment opportunities for New York families while curbing the harsh and unfair effects of a record in the State Central Register, particularly for Black and Latinx parents, who are disproportionately represented,” said Jennifer Feinberg, Senior Staff Attorney for the Center for Family Representation. “By raising the standard from  ‘some credible evidence to a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ parents can be reassured that they will not remain on the State Central Register after a Judge has determined that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of neglect in court.  Additionally, the automatic sealing of indicated reports after eight years for most jobs, and twelve years for all jobs, vastly increases parents’ employment opportunities.  Some of the best jobs in the healthcare and education fields have remained unattainable to our clients due to the current 28 year bar.  Perhaps most importantly,   this bill reflects the recognition that most cases of neglect stem from poverty and that the current unfair and unnecessary laws governing the State Central Register only add fuel to the cycle by preventing parents from securing stable and well paid jobs.  This crucial reform will strengthen New York families by providing families in poverty with greater opportunities for employment so parents can provide the stability that their families require.”

“The standards to get on the State Central Register are extremely loose and subjective, yet can create a barrier of employment for parents for up to 28 years even after cases are dismissed in court,” said State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. “This creates a cycle where parents are charged with neglect essentially because the family is in poverty, yet their ability to earn an income is crippled. With this legislation, we are starting to talk seriously about how we can provide some level of support to families in crisis and actually respond to their needs as opposed to punishing them for being poor.”

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, said, “For years, having an indicated report in New York’s Statewide Central Register has disproportionately impacted parents and families by not allowing them to request a fair hearing that considers evidence of a parent’s rehabilitation. The implications of an indicated case have severely hampered a parent’s ability to keep or secure gainful employment, affecting their ability to re-establish their lives and provide for their children and families. As Chair of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, I am pleased to have co-sponsored this legislation with overwhelming support of my colleagues in the legislature, which will help restore hope and provide equal opportunity for parents and their children to achieve economic success.”

Background on State Central Register Reform – A.8060A/S.6427A

Under current law, New York’s standard for placing parents on the SCR is far lower than that of most other jurisdictions and shares SCR records with more employers in ways that impede access to job opportunities. These include many of the best jobs that would otherwise be available to impacted parents, including in the healthcare and education fields. Most of these records are based on allegations of poverty-related neglect, which have never been reviewed by a judge. Troublingly, New York’s SCR law currently treats allegations of poverty-related neglect the same way it treats child abuse that has been proven in court. As a result, thousands of parents are routinely denied employment when there is no child safety concern that even remotely justifies this constraint on their ability to support their families. Moreover, because Black and Latinx parents are disproportionately subjected to these allegations, the impacts deepen inequality in our society. This an issue of racial and economic justice that urgently needs to be addressed.

A.8060A/S.6427A would:

  • Help prevent unfair and unnecessary harm to parents’ employment prospects by requiring a preponderance of evidence against them, rather than simply “some credible evidence,” before they are placed on the State Central Register, in line with the severity of this designation.
  • Limit unnecessary and unfair employment barriers for parents by automatically sealing indicated reports of neglect after 8 years for most jobs that have access to indicated reports on the SCR and after 12 years for all jobs that have access to these reports.
  • Ensure that SCR reports are automatically amended and sealed when a Family Court case resolves favorably.
  • Allow Fair Hearing judges to consider evidence of a parent’s rehabilitation whenever considering whether to seal an indicated report.
  • Allow people to request fair hearings to amend and seal indicated reports at any time of their choosing, as opposed to the current 90-day windows to do so.




April 19, 2019

(Brooklyn, NY) – “Brooklyn Defender Services applauds the Parole Board’s decision to release Judith Clark after the Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted her sentence. This action reflects the ongoing efforts of advocacy groups across the state and country to reduce our prison populations by releasing people who demonstrate rehabilitation and no longer pose a threat to public safety.

The Parole Board Commissioners who voted to release Ms. Clark should be commended for following the laws and guidelines that require evaluation of who a person appearing before the Board is today, rather than solely who they were when they committed the underlying crime, in making their decision to release Ms. Clark. The Governor should also be commended for recognizing Ms. Clark’s ‘exceptional strides in self-development’ and rehabilitation.

Ms. Clark’s release is critical and overdue, but thousands of other people remain in prison with sentences that may likely exceed their natural lives. Absent meaningful legislative reforms or mass commutations, many will languish and die in prison. We are heartened by recent reforms to our criminal legal system and respectfully urge that enact the Elder Parole (S.2144/A.4319).




Rally for Pre-Trial Justice Reform in the NYS Capitol


For Immediate Release…

Contact: Jared Chausow, jchausow@bds.org, 650.814.0565


(New York, NY) – Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, released today the following statement on the Enacted FY 2020 New York State Budget:

“Brooklyn Defender Services applauds the New York State Assembly, Senate and Governor for the transformative criminal justice reforms included in the budget. As was expressed by the bill sponsors, Assemblymembers Joseph Lentol and Latrice Walker and Senators Jamaal Bailey and Michael Gianaris, during the momentous debates late last night, these reforms go a long way towards correcting the unfair system that currently exists, in which people languish in jail because they cannot afford bail, awaiting trial without access to police reports, witness statements, and other basic information needed to defend themselves. I also want to recognize the tremendous work of countless public defenders, advocates, and people impacted by the criminal justice system and their families.

With amendments to the bail, discovery, and speedy trial laws, most people who are arrested will be guaranteed release rather than incarceration and will have all the evidence and information related to their case. An important provision in these reforms requires police to provide appearance tickets as opposed to immediately incarcerating people charged with low-level offenses. Now, many more of our clients will never set foot in a jail cell, a vast departure from today’s reality. Given the devastating impact that even 24 hours in jail can have on a person, particularly a young person or someone with a health condition, this change exemplifies the profound improvements to justice in New York.

In addition to pre-trial justice reform, the budget includes crucial changes to misdemeanor sentences so they do not trigger automatic collateral consequences, ends the loss of driver’s licenses upon conviction of non-driving drug offenses, and adds protections against job and housing discrimination, all of which add an element of humanity to our criminal legal system that has long been lacking.

This is an auspicious moment that reflects the beginning of the end of mass incarceration in New York. Unfortunately, due to the hundreds of ways in which the criminal laws are overly harsh and used to target Black and Latinx people, there will be work to do in the future, such as legalization of marijuana; elimination of prolonged solitary confinement; repealing the bar on release of police misconduct records; ensuring fair and timely parole; expanding protections for young people who remain in the adult criminal justice system; and rolling back the thousands of consequences triggered by convictions like fair access to employment, education, housing and other necessities.

As we gear up to fight for these and other reforms, we must recognize the profound nature of this moment, in which we see a seismic shift in the way the criminal justice system will operate and what we expect it to accomplish. The attorneys, social workers, and other staff at BDS appreciate that these reforms will eliminate many of the obstacles that too often have prevented us from being able to secure fair and humane outcomes for the people we represent and their families. We thank the Legislature and the Governor for their leadership and very much look forward to ensuring these reforms reach their full potential impact.”


Brooklyn Defender Services is a public defense organization that provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. More info is available at bds.org.



By Christina Goldbaum for the New York Times

Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Facing serious overcrowding in immigration courts, federal authorities in New York adopted a high-tech solution last year: Immigrants would be kept in detention centers for their legal proceedings, appearing before judges only by videoconference.

Now, a new lawsuit claims that the policy infringes upon immigrants’ constitutional rights in a deliberate attempt to speed up and increase deportations.

Read full article at NYtimes.com.




February 13, 2019

Daniel Ball, Brooklyn Defender Services, 347-592-2579, dball@bds.org


Detained Immigrants and New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) Providers Sue U.S. Government over Refusal to Produce Detained Immigrants In-Person for Deportation Hearings

Lawsuit Seeks to Restore the Constitutional and Statutory Rights of Hundreds of Detained Immigrants by Ending ICE’s Blanket Use of Video Teleconferencing at Varick Street Immigration Court

(NEW YORK, NY) Late yesterday, seven immigrants, representing a class of all detained immigrants in the New York City area, and the three New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) providers—Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), The Legal Aid Society (LAS), and The Bronx Defenders (BxD)—filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York challenging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) refusal to bring immigrants to court for deportation hearings. Instead of letting detained immigrants appear in court, ICE has been forcing them to use a video connection to challenge their detention and deportation.

ICE’s policy of denying in-person hearings when immigrants’ liberty, family unity, and potential exile is at stake is a cruel extension of the federal administration’s aggressive efforts to deny immigrants equal justice and due process.

[Link to complaint.]

For the first four and a half years of NYIFUP, in-person hearings ensured that detained immigrants had an opportunity to fully access the courts and participate in their defense during removal proceedings and allowed attorneys to more effectively represent and meaningfully protect their clients’ rights and interests.

Without warning, ICE’s New York Field Office announced on June 27, 2018 that starting that day, removal proceedings at the Varick Street Immigration Court in New York City would be conducted exclusively by video teleconferencing (VTC). Immigrants detained by ICE would appear by video feed from the county jail at which they are held—disconnected from the court, their lawyers, evidence presented by the Government, and their case.

The Plaintiffs are asking the federal court to enforce the government’s constitutional and statutory obligation to provide detained immigrants with due process, to ensure access to the courts, and to preserve the right of clients to communicate with their attorneys.  BDS, LAS, BxD, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP represent the class and the organizational plaintiffs.

“Because of ICE’s refusal to bring our clients and other detained immigrants to court, hundreds of immigrants are unable to fully and fairly participate in their own hearings to decide their freedom, whether they can stay with their families or whether they will be deported to persecution or, even death,” said Andrea Saenz, Attorney-in-Charge of NYIFUP at Brooklyn Defender Services, “This policy is not just a small administrative change – it goes to the heart of whether our clients will get a fair day in court to contest their deportation. We, as a society, owe due process to people facing such enormous consequences—not to lock them up and show them a TV screen where they cannot properly hear the judge, speak to their lawyers, or see their loved ones in-person.”

“When ICE stopped the in-person production of detained immigrants at the Varick Street Immigration Court, it was not only an affront to the dignity and humanity of our most vulnerable clients, but a direct assault on their fundamental due process rights to be present during their hearing and trials,” said Jennifer Williams, Deputy Attorney-in-Charge of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, “The refusal to produce policy has effectively sanitized the immigration courtrooms of our clients’ raw human emotions and experiences, which are at the heart of these proceedings, and is preventing effective and meaningful representation by their attorneys.  This policy is yet another example of the Administration’s goal to carry out swift deportations without due process of law.”

“ICE’s refusal to bring New Yorkers to the immigration courts in which their fates will be determined represents yet another effort by this administration to deport as many people, with as few protections, as possible,” said Sarah Deri Oshiro, Managing Director of The Bronx Defenders’ Immigration Practice. “This is a bald attempt to punish a ‘sanctuary city’ and undermine the successes of the nation’s first universal representation program which has ensured that hundreds of families have remained united.”

“We are proud to be part of this important lawsuit to vindicate the constitutional and statutory rights of detained immigrants in the New York area,” said Robert Gunther, a partner at WilmerHale. “ICE’s policy of refusing in-person hearings is wrong on every level and is just the latest effort on the part of the current administration to deny rights to those most in need of our compassion and our help.”

“Detained immigrants are guaranteed a right to due process, and the ICE policy infringes on that right,” said Susan Gittes, a partner at Debevoise.  “The hearings taking place by video teleconference are totally inconsistent with the bedrock principles of our judicial system—judges are forced to make credibility determinations while separated by video screen, detained immigrants cannot confidentially confer with their attorneys during proceedings, and detained immigrants with intellectual disabilities or in need of interpretation services may not even be able to understand the hearings that determine their rights. These plaintiffs have a right to fair hearings and full access to their counsel, and this lawsuit seeks to restore those rights.”


The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, run collectively by Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, and The Legal Aid Society, is the first program in the nation providing publicly-funded counsel to immigrants detained and facing deportation and separation from their families and communities.



Today, Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), RAICES, and ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) are announcing the launch of the “While They Wait” (whiletheywait.org) campaign, which includes a new fund and call to action to help raise awareness and support for immigrants, particularly those seeking asylum and/or facing family separation. There are over 1 million immigrants, including 300,000 asylum seekers, currently living in the United States, who are going through the legal steps to gain immigration status. This campaign is being launched in tandem with the release of the new music video directed by Jake Schreier, for the song “I Found You / Nilda’s Story” by benny blanco, Calvin Harris, and Miguel.

Read full press release here.



December 11, 2018

Contact: Daniel Ball

(347) 592-2579



(Brooklyn, NY) – Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director and Founder of Brooklyn Defender Services, issued the following statement on the Dismissal of Charges against Jazmine Headley:

“The charges against Jazmine Headley relating to the violent arrest she suffered at an HRA office in Brooklyn have been dismissed. We are filing a special application to ask the judge to release her on the New Jersey matter today. If the judge does not grant this application, she is scheduled to be transferred to New Jersey tomorrow.

Ms. Headley is still detained at Rikers, for the fifth day away from her infant son. Brooklyn Defender Services has been frequently visiting her and speaking with her on the phone, and she is staying strong. We are keeping her updated on the public attention her case has received and she is heartened by the outcry and support.

I hope District Attorney Eric Gonzalez analyzes his office’s procedures do that cases like Jazmine’s are not prosecuted in the future.”

About Brooklyn Defender Services

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is a non-profit public defense office in Brooklyn, New York. BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and other civil legal services, and social work support to over 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.




(Brooklyn, NY) – Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director and Founder of Brooklyn Defender Services, issued the following statement regarding the violent mistreatment of our client Jazmine Headley at a SNAP office in Brooklyn:

“We are appalled by the abuse that our client Ms. Headley and her 1 year-old son suffered at the hands of the NYPD, and we question why police were ever involved. In our experience, people are often treated abysmally when seeking support from many of the city bureaucracies that are supposed to be helping them. While their experiences are not always caught on video, they tell us about their struggles – from randomly terminated benefits to hours-long wait times and hostile security staff. We appreciate elected officials’ calls for investigations of the response by NYPD and the actions of HRA security staff. A social services agency whose mission is to provide critical support for vulnerable New Yorkers must treat all people with dignity and compassion, and should not call the police for this type of matter. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office should immediately dismiss the charges. Further, ACS should respect the family and ensure their immediate reunification.”


About Brooklyn Defender Services

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is a non-profit public defense office in Brooklyn, New York. BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and other civil legal services, and social work support to over 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.



Our immigrant clients need your help.

Exorbitant application fees are often the only thing keeping them from obtaining lawful status, supporting their families, and living a life out from under the shadows and fear of deportation.

This Giving Tuesday, you can help break this barrier by donating to our Immigration Fees Fund.

Your support has already helped dozens of our clients pay for DACA application forms ($495), green card renewals ($540), work authorizations ($410), medical exams ($175-300), and more.

Here are some of their stories:

  • BDS helped a father of three facing deportation win his immigration case and stay in the United States. However, because he could not afford the fee required for him to work, his family faced eviction from their home. Our Immigration Fees Fund helped him get authorization and support his family.
  • A mother struggling with poverty and homelessness lost her documents that proved her lawful immigration status, which she needed to apply for Medicaid. Our Immigration Fees Fund covered the cost of her green card application so she could access the benefits needed to keep her family together.
  • A father was facing the very real possibility of detention and/or deportation if his I-130 immigration application (based on his children’s U.S. resident status) wasn’t filed ASAP. Out of work because of a recent car accident, the $535 fee was out of the question. Donations to our Immigration Fees Fund covered this cost.
You can help more families like these with a one-time or recurring donation to our Immigration Fees Fund. We thank you for your support.



Brooklyn Defender Services is excited to invite our neighbors and partners to join us in celebration of the one year anniversary of BDS’ Community Office at 566 Livonia Ave.

We are thrilled to have a presence in East New York and to serve Brooklyn residents with legal information, education and assistance.

Light refreshments will be served.

RSVP here.





Hemangi Pai – Criminal Defense Practice




Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Justice System

            Oversight Hearing on the Cost of Justice

September 27, 2018


My name is Hemangi Pai and I am a senior staff attorney in the criminal defense practice of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Our organization provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy in nearly 35,000 cases involving indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I am a senior staff attorney on the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team (BART), a specialized unit at BDS made up of dedicated attorneys and social workers who represent over two thousand adolescents ages 13-24 annually. During my tenure at BDS, I have defended hundreds of young people accused of crimes in Brooklyn’s criminal and Supreme Court.

I thank the New York City Council Committee on Justice System, and in particular Chairperson Rory Lancman, for the opportunity to testify about the use of monetary penalties in our criminal legal system. On any given day, thousands of indigent people plead guilty to crimes or non-criminal violations and become burdened with various court-imposed fines, fees and surcharges that they have no ability to pay. This continues to be an issue that disproportionately impacts poor defendants and their families, particularly those who are Black and Latinx.


Monetary penalties have a deep and pernicious impact on people with criminal legal system involvement. These penalties include: bail, fines, restitution, and child support obligations that are ordered by the court. New Yorkers may also be subject to surcharges, user fees, late fees, payment plan fees, and interest. Unpaid debt often accumulates, making it more difficult to pay, affecting a person’s employment options, credit applications, ability to obtain loans and housing, driver’s license, and sometimes even leading to incarceration.

Fines and fees are an enormous source of income for state and local entities. In 2017, for example, village and town courts in New York State collected a total of $171 million in 2017 just for traffic tickets and other minor violations.[1] In the same year, the New York State Office of Court Administration reported an intake of $607 million from all state, county and city remedies, though not all of that revenue came from defendants or their families.[2]

As with most aspects of the criminal legal system, monetary penalties disproportionately impact poor Black and Latinx people and their families. The legal system’s reliance on financial penalties siphons much-needed money from already vulnerable communities and deepens inequality in our society.

Client Story

A few years ago, the BDS adolescent team represented Maria, a high school student with no prior criminal record who was accused of a misdemeanor. Maria participated in Young New Yorkers, an eight-week youth arts program, and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation that allowed her to avoid a permanent criminal record. However, people convicted of violations are required to pay a mandatory surcharge of $95, with a crime victim assistance fee of $25, for a total of $120.

Maria was still in high school and had no source of income or immediate job prospects. Maria lived with her mom, who did not have a job or any other source of income. Though the court deferred the payment to a later date, she would be subject to a civil judgment if she could not pay the $120 by the court-required deadline. A civil judgment would act as a lien against future property and would have remained on Maria’s credit score for up to seven years, even if she managed to pay it off, limiting her ability to obtain school loans, rent an apartment, secure employment, and even obtain healthcare. BDS filed a resentencing motion on behalf of Maria, in the interest of justice, and we convinced a judge to waive the surcharge, allowing Maria to graduate high school and pursue her dream of going to college without these mandatory and unaffordable surcharges and fees hanging over her head.

Another recent example is Marcus, a Black teenager, whom we represented after he was brought into late-night arraignments because he failed to pay a fee on a marijuana summons a few months earlier. The warrant squad arrested him at his home and took him into custody, where he remained for hours before he was finally brought before the judge. To the credit of the King’s County DA’s Office, once the Assistant District Attorney saw the charge, they immediately dismissed the case. But Marcus still suffered the indignity of being forced from his home in handcuffs and detained in a putrid holding cell because he was too poor to pay the fine for engaging in behavior that is now legal in seven other states, and that white people throughout New York City regularly engage in without fear of arrest or fines.[3]

Mary and Marcus are just two of the hundreds of clients that I and the rest of the BART team represent every year who are impacted by heavy fines and fees that limit their ability to overcome their previous criminal legal system involvement. We call on the Council to require more extensive reporting on this issue and to join with advocates to call on the state legislature to end, wherever possible, this systemic extraction of wealth from poor people.

 Fines and Fees


Fines are monetary punishments for infractions, non-criminal violations, misdemeanors or felonies. Fines are usually intended to deter crime and compensate victims for losses, but given the broader inequalities in our criminal legal system, they unduly burden poor defendants and their families. Depending on the conviction, fines can be used as an alternative to incarceration, but in many cases, if a person cannot pay then they will be incarcerated. Currently, the statute for collection of fines and surcharges stipulates that payments are first allocated to surcharges, then to fines, which is problematic because non-payments of fines can land a person in jail.[4] Some common fines are listed below:


  Level/Type of Offense Fine Amount Notes
Crimes Felonies (A-I, A-II, B, C) $15,000 – $100,000[5]  
  A misdemeanor $1,000 or double the value of the property disposed of in the commission of the crime[6]  
  B misdemeanor $500[7]  
Non-Criminal Violations Violation $250 or as specified for the violation[8]  
  Disorderly behavior Up to $200[9]


Vehicle and Traffic Law Violations Traffic infraction $75 to $2,000[10]  
  Traffic misdemeanor $300 to $2,500  
  Traffic felony (E, D) $1,000 to $10,000[11]  
Prison and Jail Infractions NYCDOC disciplinary infraction $25 per ticket/rule violation[12] This usually is in conjunction with other punishment such as solitary confinement and other restrictions, essentially a perverse system where individuals pay to be locked up in “The Box.”
  NYSDOCCS disciplinary infraction $5 per infraction Same as above.



Fees are itemized payments for court activities, supervision or incarceration charged to a defendant found guilty of infractions, misdemeanors or felonies or individuals who have not been charged and are going through the criminal justice process. Fees serve as a regressive form of punishment because criminal debt presents an increasingly larger burden for a person on the lower end of the income scale. Moreover, when a person cannot pay the cash amount of the court-mandated financial penalty upfront, their debt only grows with payment plans fees, late payment fees or interest. We list below many, but not all, of the fees that typically burden our clients and their families.

Surcharges and fees:

  • Mandatory surcharges[13]
    • Felony – $300 and a $25 crime victim assistance fee
    • Misdemeanor – $175 and a $25 crime victim assistance fee
    • Violation – $95 and a $25 crime victim assistance fee
  • DWI probation administrative fee – $30 per month[14]
  • Parole supervision fee – $30 per month[15]
  • DNA databank fee (including for people who have already had their DNA taken) – $50[16]
  • Sex offender registration fee – $50[17]
  • Supplemental sex offender victim fee – $1,000[18]
  • Supervision fee while in prison – $1 per week[19]
  • Termination of license fee – $100[20]
  • Administrative fee of 3% on every credit card bail payment
  • Non-refundable 2.49% fee per transaction for online bail payments
  • Fee for obtaining one’s own RAP sheet (which may be riddled with errors) – $65

As we know from Intro. No. 741, a bill the Council recently passed to make domestic phone calls in Department of Correction facilities free to people in city jails and their families, our system has many egregious user fees that often go unnoticed unless brought to the forefront by advocates and elected officials. We want to reiterate our thanks to Speaker Johnson and the Committee on Criminal Justice for passing Intro. No. 741 and hope we can continue the momentum towards eliminating other costs that burden indigent people and their families.

The reality is that paying fines, fees or any monetary penalty comes with a very real human cost. Every time a person shows up to court to resolve their case or make payments towards their financial penalty they have to take off from work, which means potentially losing income for that day or days. People who are reliant on the subway have to pay $2.75 per ride to get to and from the courthouse to go before the judge or to make payments at the courthouse. The money they pay could have gone toward rent, food, medicine, or other necessities.

Punishments for people who cannot pay their criminal debt

Fines and fees incurred during the criminal legal process may follow people months or years after their case is resolved. Even for people who have not been sentenced to jail or prison, the non-payment of monetary sanctions may lead to unnecessary warrants, arrests, incarceration or probation revocations. For people on parole, failure to pay the supervision fee can be used as a reason to deny early discharge or a person’s application for a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.[21] Unfortunately, our clients are sometimes rearrested and sentenced to up to 15 days in jail for failure to pay these fees. When we ask for an indigency hearing to prevent our clients from incarceration for inability to pay, judges may be skeptical, asking why our clients asked for time to pay in the first place if they could not actually do so. Financial hardship is not static – for many of our clients living paycheck to paycheck or on fixed incomes, their ability to afford their day-to-day expenses can change quickly and unexpectedly. But for people interacting with the criminal legal system and experiencing poverty, these changes that make it impossible for a person to pay a fine or fee may result in incarceration, exacerbating harm to both our clients and their families, simply because they are poor.

Fines also follow our clients who are sentenced to jail or prison time. People in City jails may have their minimal wages or commissary accounts garnished to pay off accumulated fines, surcharges and fees. The state prisons system may also garnish payment from an incarcerated person’s commissary account, money earned from work release programs or any source of income or money in a person’s possession. For people incarcerated in upstate prisons who owe criminal legal debt and are paid pennies for every hour worked, the state removes 20 percent from their commissary every two weeks and 50 percent of any money added to their account by a loved one or family members.[22] Also, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision regularly takes two percent of funds in a commissary account for the $40 (also known as “gate money”) given to every person upon their release.[23] The parallels between slavery and Jim Crow and this nearly-unpaid work scheme for incarcerated people are staggering and are not lost on our clients and their families. Our clients frequently tell us that fines and fees limit their ability to overcome their criminal legal system interactions and move on with their lives.

How is the money being allocated?

It takes a great amount of time and research to track these fines through the criminal legal system and figure out how they are being allocated. I am sure we do not know all the ways the city and state use money that extracts from poor New Yorkers who become involved in the criminal legal system, but we are sure that it is not being reinvested into more needed programs or into the communities as viable resources. However, we were able to find out some of the places where money is being allocated. Based on the Criminal Court of the City of New York 2016 Annual Report, $29,828,600 was generated from fines, summons, DNA fees, transcript fees, bail and more.[24] This money went to the “operational cost of the unified court system.” A New York State Commission of Correction report found that as of March 2017, “there was $3,538,419.60 waiting to be transferred to the Police Property Payable Fund.”[25] This figure refers to money that belonged to incarcerated people that was not returned to them after their release. BDS is well acquainted with how difficult it is for our clients to have their own money returned to them after their release from DOC custody. It is unconscionable that the City has not improved this process and allows the police to utilize this money to continue to target and arrest poor people of color. In short, it is unscrupulous for our city and state to collect money from impoverish communities and not be transparent about how and where the money is being allocated.

Racial biases in arrests and summonses generate revenue for the criminal legal system and perpetuate harm

Fines and fees are particularly problematic because of the intentional discrimination, racial bias and stereotyping of Black, Latinx and immigrant communities that leads to the racial disparities that are well-documented at every stage of the criminal legal system.[26] It is unconscionable that in our progressive city we continue to create and bolster more ways to extract money out of low-income communities of color, while neglecting to sufficiently invest in them as a means to prevent the continuous interaction with the justice system.

Pushed by advocates for criminal justice reform, and in this era of heightened awareness about racial disparities in NYPD enforcement and the immigration impacts of criminalization, New York City has begun to reduce arrests for certain low-level offenses. Indeed, misdemeanor arrests have declined in most categories. However, it is important to recognize replacing racially targeted arrests with racially targeted summonses does not end the harm. Criminal summonses, which can result in warrants that trigger pre-trial detention upon arrest, and civil summonses, which can damage a person’s credit and even trigger debt collection, are not the answer to an unequal criminal legal system. This is particularly true for offenses linked to poverty, such as fare evasion, where hefty fines are clearly out of reach for those who could not afford a $2.75 fare in the first place. Instead, we should question the impulse toward punishment altogether, and pursue models of support and harm reparation that do not involve police.

Impact on young people

On any given day, hundreds of indigent young people plead guilty and become burdened with various court-imposed fines, fees and surcharges that they have no ability to pay. This includes children 16 and 17 who, even after Raise the Age is fully implemented, will be forced to pay $120 in fees if convicted of disorderly conduct. These court costs discriminate heavily against the poorest young people. Young people from middle-class families who can afford to pay the court costs on their behalf face a mere inconvenience while young people from poor families face what is in many cases a longer lasting punishment than the sentence. When a person cannot pay the costs associated with criminal justice involvement, these costs are entered as a civil judgment against them. A civil judgment ruins young people’s fledgling credit scores before they even have a chance to develop them and erects barriers to becoming responsible income-earning adults. A civil judgment on a credit score affects the young person’s future applications for apartments, employment, car loans and even student loans, even though these resources are correlated with reducing recidivism.


City Actions

The City should compile a comprehensive list of all the user fees, fines and surcharges that exist within the criminal legal system, imposed at the state and city level, and document the total revenue generated, where it is going and how it is spent. This information should be easily accessible to the public, so that people facing criminal justice involvement and their families can know the costs that they potentially face.

The Council should also require reporting on the number of New York City residents who are incarcerated or had their driver’s license suspended because of their inability to pay a fine, surcharge or fee and the number of civil judgments issued against defendants by the courts.

If the City imposes any user fees on criminal defendants, the Council should eliminate them or allow judges or clerks to waive them for indigent people. Additionally, the City should eliminate other costs imposed on incarcerated people and their families, such as JPAY service charges and fines for alleged infractions in city jails.

The City should assess current criminal debt collection practices, with particular attention to the practices of private debt collection agencies. Often there are little to no enforceable regulations when people attempt to seek recourse against these entities for abuse or misconduct.

Supporting State Reforms

The Council should join with advocates to call on the New York State Legislature to eliminate or significantly limit most court fines and fees and call for broader discretion for judges to waive them for indigent defendants. People should never be incarcerated due to failure to pay criminal court debt, especially if the court has not made an ability-to-pay determination. People should never be saddled with a civil judgment for failure to pay criminal legal debt absent a court determination that they are not indigent (i.e., able to pay without unreasonable hardship). Fees and fines should be tailored to an individual’s ability to pay and courts should be allowed to reduce or eliminate such fines and fees based on a person’s change in circumstances.

One suggestion is to pass a Resolution in favor of A.9786/S.7917, a bill that passed the New York State Assembly earlier this year, that would authorize judges to waive certain surcharges and fees for a defendant under the age of 21 under certain circumstances. That said, BDS believes that all indigent people, regardless of age, should not be burdened with the financial responsibility for our legal system.


Financial penalties exacerbate both the economic and emotional distress for impoverished families involved in the criminal legal system. These penalties force families to choose between paying court fines and fees or paying for basic needs such as rent or food, putting pressure on family ties. This hearing is an important first step in better understanding the problems associated with fines and fees and the burdens they impose on our communities, but further investigation is necessary to provide a full understanding of what steps the Council can take to address this problem.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this important issue. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Saye Joseph, Policy Associate, 718-254-0700 ext. 206 or scjoseph@bds.org.

[1] Michelle Breidenbach, 50 Upstate NY towns that collect most fines for speeding, traffic violations, New York Upstate, July 26, 2018, available at https://www.newyorkupstate.com/expo/news/erry-2018/07/ab2e7d572e1626/50-upstate-ny-towns-that-colle.html.

[2] New York State Unified Court System 2017 Annual Report (2018), available at http://ww2.nycourts.gov/sites/default/files/document/files/2018-09/17_UCS-Annual_Report.pdf (Note: This revenue includes fees for attorney registrations and criminal search histories. The report does not break down what percentage of the $607 million was charged to defendants or indigent defendants).

[3] See, e.g., P.R. Lockhart, Black people in NYC are 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, Vox, May 14, 2018, available at: https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/5/14/17353040/racial-disparity-marijuana-arrests-new-york-city-nypd.

[4] N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 420.10.

[5] N.Y. Penal Law § 80.00.

[6] N.Y. Penal Law § 80.05.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 10-177.

[10] N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 1800.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Erika Eicherlberger, The Literal Cost of Solitary Confinement, The New Republic, Sept. 15, 2015, available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/122822/prisons-use-solitary-confinement-empty-inmates-wallets.

[13] N.Y. Penal Law § 60.35.

[14] N.Y. Exec. Law § 257-c.

[15] N.Y. Correct. Law § 201 (9)(a).

[16] N.Y. Penal Law § 60.35 (1)(a)(v).

[17] N.Y. Penal Law § 60.35.

[18] Ibid.

[19] N.Y. Correct. Law § 189.

[20] N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law § 503.

[21]New York State Corrections and Community Supervision, Community Supervision Fees (Mar. 9, 2017), available at http://www.doccs.ny.gov/Directives/9250.pdf. See also Center for Community Alternatives, Sentencing for Dollars: The Financial Consequences of a Criminal Conviction (Feb. 2007), available at http://www.communityalternatives.org/pdf/financial%20consequences.pdf.

[22] Ibid.

[23] N.Y. Correct. Law § 125.

[24] Criminal Court of the City of New York, Annual Report (2016), at 56, available at http://www.nycourts.gov/COURTS/nyc/criminal/2016-Annual-Report-Final.pdf.

[25] New York State Commission of Correction, The Worst Offenders, Report: The Most Problematic Local Correctional Facilities of New York State (Feb. 2018), available at http://www.scoc.ny.gov/pdfdocs/Problematic-Jails-Report-2-2018.pdf.

[26]  U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color: Civil Rights & Constitutional Implications (Sept. 2017), available at https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2017/Statutory_Enforcement_Report2017.pdf. see also Greg Ridgeway, Analysis of Racial Disparities in the New York Police Department’s Stop, Question, and Frisk Practices (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), available at https://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR534.html.



In April 2017, New York State enacted statewide reforms intended to improve the right to counsel for people charged with a criminal offense, who cannot afford to hire an attorney.

Amendments to New York County Law § 722-e and the addition of Executive Law § 832 (4) enacted by New York State Governor Cuomo and supported by the NYS legislature encourages and enables each criminal defense provider of legally mandated representation to furnish high quality, effective representation for every client. These recent legislative reforms offer public defense providers across the state the opportunity to hire additional attorneys, investigators, social workers and support staff and develop other resources to further their efforts in improving the overall quality of mandated representation.

Persons eager to explore opportunities within the New York State public defense arena who seek a challenging work environment that promotes diversity, embraces change, and provides leadership opportunities are encouraged to participate in this Public Defenders Career Fair.

See here for more information.





SEPTEMBER 11, 2018


New York, N.Y — Attorneys from Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, and Legal Aid Society – New York City’s public defender organizations providing free legal representation on immigration matters through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) – submitted a joint letter to Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise urging him to postpone the vote on a resolution phasing out its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The letter detailed their concerns about passing the resolution, which would likely result in people being detained hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families and communities and eliminate their access to free legal counsel. Through the NYIFUP program, the three providers serve people who are detained and subject to deportation proceedings at the Varick Street immigration court as well as a small number of New York residents with hearings at the Elizabeth immigration court. These clients include the majority of people detained at Hudson County’s jail, as well as people detained in the jails in Bergen, Orange and Essex Counties. NYIFUP representation has dramatically increased the likelihood of detained people winning their cases from 4% to 48%.

The letter detailing their concerns and opposition to the plan includes the following excerpts:

“As supervising attorneys representing detained immigrants facing deportation through New York City’s pioneering New York Immigrant Family Unit Project (NYIFUP), we respectfully implore you to postpone the vote on a resolution phasing out the contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Neither we nor the people we represent were consulted on this resolution and while there are local interests involved, the consequences of passing it would extend far beyond Hudson County.”

“To be clear, we strongly support the movement to abolish ICE and believe there is no place for the jailing of asylum-seekers, longtime community members, or anyone else based on birthplace in a just society. The civil and human rights violations perpetrated by ICE against immigrants and people of color are longstanding and well-documented. To us, abolishing ICE is about a fundamental transformation of our immigration system into one that truly respects human rights and the ideals of liberty and equality. That said, ending contracts for ICE detention in jails near large immigrant communities where attorneys are provided for free – while ICE continues to make arrests in these communities – will do far more harm than good and we question whether directly impacted people were engaged in this decision. Hudson County and other local governments have local control over jail contracts with ICE, but they do not have any control over what will happen to detained people if these contracts are terminated. That is up to ICE.

People who would otherwise be detained near their families and communities would instead be moved, likely hundreds or thousands of miles away, and quite possibly to remote private prisons where neither attorneys nor vigilant community members and clergy would be able to advocate for their rights and safety. Those with open cases and scheduled hearings – people who will have suffered weeks or months of detention awaiting this opportunity to fight for their freedom and right to remain in their community – would be severed from their support networks and attorneys and their cases will be derailed.”

“Our country must fundamentally transform its immigration system to recognize the humanity of all people, including by repealing the laws that created our current mass immigration detention system. While we fight toward that end, we must proceed responsibly and do no harm – at least not without the leadership of directly impacted people making decisions for themselves.”

Read the full letter here.


The New York Family Immigrant Unity Project (NYIFUP) is the nation’s first public defender system for immigrants facing deportation—defined as those in removal proceedings before an immigration judge. Funded by the New York City Council since July 2014, the program provides a free attorney to almost all detained indigent immigrants facing deportation at Varick Street Immigration Court who are unrepresented at their first court appearances.



Contacts: Jared Chausow, jchausow@bds.org, (650) 814-0565

Anna Kim, annakim@bronxdefenders.org, (919) 259-8069

Joint Statement in Opposition to Phase-Out of Hudson County Jail Contract with ICE

Sept. 6, 2018 – (Brooklyn, NY) Today, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise announced a plan to exit a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide immigration detention in the county jail. Brooklyn Defender Services and Bronx Defenders released the following statement in opposition to this plan:

“As attorneys representing detained immigrants facing deportation through New York City’s pioneering New York Immigrant Family Unit Project (NYIFUP), we strongly support the movement to abolish ICE and believe there is no place for the jailing of asylum-seekers, longtime community members,  or anyone else based on birthplace in a just society. The civil and human rights violations perpetrated by ICE against immigrants and people of color are longstanding and well-documented. That said, ending contracts for ICE detention in jails near large immigrant communities where attorneys are provided for free will do far more harm than good and we question whether directly impacted people were engaged in this decision. Hudson County and other local governments have local control over jail contracts with ICE, but they do not have any control over what will happen to detained people if these contracts are terminated. That’s up to ICE.

People who are currently detained near their families and communities would be moved, likely hundreds or thousands of miles away, and quite possibly to remote private prisons where neither attorneys nor vigilant community members and clergy would be able to advocate for their rights and safety.

Certainly, reallocating revenue from the contract with ICE toward better serving people caught in the web of immigration detention, as local advocates and elected officials have called for, is worthy, but phasing out the contract itself is the wrong move.

NYIFUP representation has increased the likelihood of detained people winning their cases by a factor of 12 – from 4% to 48%. In addition to saving people from deportation, family dissolution, and in many cases death in their country of origin, this program has shown that nearly half of the people arrested and detained by ICE have a legal claim to remain in their homes and communities here under the law. This only strengthens the argument to abolish ICE.

Our country must fundamentally transform its immigration system to recognize the humanity of all people, including by repealing the laws that created our current mass immigration detention system. Until that is achieved, we must proceed responsibly and do no harm.”






Nyasa Hickey – Supervising Attorney, Immigration Practice



Presented before

The New York City Council

Committees on Immigration and Youth Services

Oversight Hearing on Abolish ICE

Int. 1092-2018 & Resolution on Abolish ICE


September 6, 2018



My name is Nyasa Hickey. I am a Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). I thank the City Council for this opportunity to testify about the Abolish ICE movement and the many ways that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actively harms New York City and our immigrant communities.

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is a full-service public defender office in Brooklyn, representing nearly 35,000 low-income New Yorkers each year who are arrested, charged with abuse or neglect of their children or face deportation. Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 10,000 immigrant clients. We are a Board of Immigration Appeals-recognized legal service provider.

BDS strongly supports the Abolish ICE movement. The civil and human rights violations perpetrated by ICE against immigrants and people of color are longstanding and well-documented.[1] But we believe that our immigration system requires a complete overhaul in order to end these abuses. Simply initiating a bureaucratic reorganization of ICE is not sufficient. We call on the City Council to join with us to demand a fundamental transformation of our immigration system to one that recognizes the humanity of all people and that upholds the values of equal justice and due process for all.

Dismantling of the current immigration system will require a different Congress and President committed to true reform. Until this transformation becomes a political reality, we urge the Council to proceed with caution in determining which temporary measures to support. In particular, we will focus our testimony below on the harm that closing down New York City-area detention centers would have for our clients and their families. We look to the Council for your support in this advocacy work.

The New York City Council has led the nation in efforts to protect and support immigrant communities. The first-in-the-nation public defender program for detained immigrants facing deportation, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), is a model for legal services provision that is now being replicated in jurisdictions across the country.[2] NYIFUP representation has resulted in a 1,100% increase in the success rate for NYIFUP clients, as compared to New York City residents facing deportation prior to NYIFUP. Since the project’s inception in 2013, NYIFUP has reunified more than 750 people with their families and helped more than 400 New Yorkers gain or maintain work authorization by winning their immigration cases. The Vera Institute of Justice projects that these successful outcomes will produce tax revenue from this cohort of NYIFUP clients of $2.7 million each and every year, for years to come.[3] In addition, the City invests millions of dollars every year for additional immigration legal services, English language lessons, citizenship outreach and education, and other programming that support the success of immigrant New Yorkers.

And yet despite these significant investments from the City, immigrant New Yorkers face increased risk of targeting and apprehension by ICE. First, we lay out the history of ICE and modern immigration policy to give the Council context about the system that our clients currently face. We then lay out many of the problematic practices that we see in New York City on a daily basis. Next we describe ways that the Council can advocate for fundamental system change while minimizing harm to New Yorkers currently caught up in the immigration deportation system. Finally, we offer our support for the two measures currently before the Council today.


In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was formed to oversee “immigration enforcement actions to prevent unlawful entry into the United States and to apprehend and repatriate aliens who have violated or failed to comply with U.S. immigration laws.”[4]Within DHS, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is responsible for immigration enforcement, detention, and removal.  While abuses by ICE have garnered national attention, our country has a long and troubled history of persecuting immigrants. In our support of Abolish ICE, we also urge the City Council to support comprehensive immigration reform which is necessary to create humane immigration policies.

Historically, immigration policies addressed the civil process of determining who was eligible to cross borders or reside in the United States.[5] The Reagan administration ushered in rhetoric of equating noncitizens with crime, relying on prejudice and stereotypes about immigrants present in this country from the United States’ earliest days.[6] As tough on crime policies of the 1980s led to prison crowding, noncitizens increasingly became a scapegoat; the Reagan administration promoted anti-immigrant rhetoric focused on falsehoods such as immigrants’ economic burden on the citizen taxpayers a result of their presence in prisons, schools, and hospitals.[7] The Reagan administration passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act[8] and the Immigration Reform and Control Act[9], which expanded grounds for deporting noncitizens with drug conviction and created as system for deporting any noncitizens following prison sentences.[10] These laws created a narrative that centered immigrants in discussions of drug use and crime, though immigrants were actually arrested at lower rates than citizens—which still holds true today.[11] This conceptual shift in the collective view of immigrants as criminal paved the way for more restrictive immigration laws.

The Immigrant Justice Network and NYU School of Law report Dismantle, Don’t Expand: The 1996 Immigration Laws outlines how three major bills passed and signed into law by President Clinton laid out the framework for ICE as we know it today.[12] First, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act[13] (AEDPA) “expanded the criminal grounds for deportation, limited relief from removal, restricted judicial review, and expanded mandatory detention.”[14] Second, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act[15] barred immigrants from federal public benefits and allowed state and local government to impose additional restrictions.[16] Finally, the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act[17] (IIRIRA) created sweeping changes to immigration law. IIRIRA expanded the grounds for mandatory detention and removal, limited access to discretionary relief from removal, restricted avenues for relief from deportation and detention, authorized cooperation between federal immigration local law enforcement, and created funding for additional. [18] Additionally, IIRIRA created income requirements for citizens trying to sponsor family members, created a provision to prevent poor immigrants who may become a “public charge,” and created multiyear bars from re-entry following deportation.[19] These bills disproportionately impacted low-income immigrants of color. Broken Windows policing, as operationalized by the NYPD starting in the early 1990s, almost exclusively targeted people of color, new immigrants and other socially and economically marginalized groups.[20]  For noncitizens, a single interaction with local law enforcement may trigger immigration detention and deportation.[21]

Following the passage of IIRIRA, the negative impact on immigrant families became clear. Income requirements to sponsor family members, mandatory bars on returning to the U.S. after deportation, and mandatory detention following deportation orders penalized dual-status families, long term residents and green card holders. Calls to reform this legislation (“Fix ‘96”) gained bipartisan support, including from the bill’s sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith.[22] The campaign centered the need to “amend IIRIRA’s provisions concerning retroactive deportations, constraints on judicial review, mandatory detention, the use of secret evidence, and expedited removals.”[23]

These efforts, however, were largely forgotten in the wake of 9/11. Following the terror attacks, the IIRIRA provisions which allowed for quick detention and deportation were again seen as keeping America safe. Widespread fear of crime and distrust of immigrants allowed Congress’s creation of DHS and ICE. Since September 11, 2001, we have seen the traumatic impact of enforcing IIRIRA. In particular, over the last few months, the public has become aware of the lived reality of ICE’s impact on immigrant individuals, families, communities and human rights principles.  ICE is tearing apart families, deporting parents and spouses, and destabilizing low-income communities of color. In addition to calls to Abolish ICE, we encourage the City Council to work to create a humane immigration system that restores due process rights, allows judicial discretion, and treats immigrants with dignity.

 ICE’s Ramped Up Enforcement in New York City Immigrant Communities

The impact of enforcement policies at the federal level are felt every day by our immigrant clients, their families and New York City communities. The mass separation of parents and children at the border this spring and summer were one of the most publically visible and shocking example of the agency’s actions, but their cruel and illegal enforcement tactics harm people in New York City, too. We have written about all of these practices at length in previous testimony[24], but list many of ICE’s most pernicious practices here:

  • Arrests
    • Increased ICE arrests in and around city courthouses, limiting access to the court system[25]
    • Increased home and workplace raids in the community[26]
    • Reliance on ruses and other nefarious means to lure targets into ICE custody[27]
    • Effectuating arrests or entering private homes without judicial warrants[28]
    • Racial profiling, including relying on unsubstantiated gang allegations[29]
    • Detaining people at Order of Supervision (OSUP) check-ins[30]
    • Re-arresting people who have won relief in immigration court but have not yet received their visas or green cards[31]
  • Court Appearances
    • Abolishing in-person appearances at Varick Street Courthouse and requiring detained people to appear in court via Video Teleconferencing (VTC)[32]
    • Failing to produce detained people for state court proceedings where writs are issued by the courts or prosecutors to ensure their appearance
  • Detention
    • Sub-standard detention conditions for detained immigrants
      • Insufficient access to medical care and mental health treatment[33]
      • Insufficient or spoiled food[34]
      • Damaged and insufficient clothing and hygiene products[35]
    • Lack of access to programming and other supports
    • Lack of sufficient language services to facilitate communication with non-English-speaking detained people

Other actors in the immigration deportation system also frequently violate our clients’ rights, and our concerns about their actions are listed in previous testimony before this committee. The combined effect of these injustices are that our clients are increasingly likely to be targeted for enforcement or swept up in mass raids, held for months of years without bond in horrible  detention conditions. All of this occurs on top of harsh and unfair laws like IIRIRA that disproportionately punish low-income people of color.

Urge Caution

Because of all of the harmful practices, policies and laws that we listed above, we urge the Council to remain committed, first and foremost, to advocating for reform that will not harm impacted communities. Robust funding for immigration legal services like NYIFUP are critical to keeping families together and we urge you to maintain and increase your financial support.

Brooklyn Defender Services has very serious concerns about the impacts of closing immigration detention facilities in Hudson, Essex and Bergen Counties in New Jersey on the people we represent. Local news outlets have recently reported on efforts by New Jersey residents to urge their local legislators to end detention contracts with ICE.[36] Ending mass immigration detention – or any immigration detention at all – is paramount, but simply closing these facilities, where detained people have access to free representation through NYIFUP will result in grave consequences for detained immigrants and their families.

If the New Jersey detention facilities end their contracts with ICE, New Yorkers arrested by ICE will be shipped off to distant facilities, perhaps several states away to rural areas. Outside of the New York City area and Varick Street Immigration Court, they will not have access to their families or a NYIFUP attorney. Families play a critical role in supporting detained people during the pendency of their case. The presence of a detained person’s spouse, children and close family friends not only build up their loved one’s morale, they also are frequently critical witness or are able to collect evidence essential to prove a detained person’s legal claim to remain in the U.S. with their family.

In New York City, NYIFUP representation, in which BDS is one of the three providers, has increased the likelihood of detained people winning their cases by a factor of 12 – from 4% to 48%. In addition to saving people from deportation, family dissolution, and worse, this program has shown that nearly half of the people arrested and detained by ICE have a legal claim to remain in their homes and communities here under the law.

NYIFUP achieves these incredible success rates because NYIFUP provides detained people with experienced and highly qualified deportation attorneys in immigration court. We are also funded by the Council to provide investigators, trained forensic social workers, expert witnesses, re-entry services, connections to rehabilitative programs and services, legal assistance from any of our other practice areas (including criminal defense, family defense and civil legal services) and federal court litigation expertise. These wraparound and inter-disciplinary advocacy and support will be lost to all detained people who are transferred far from New York City, effectively undercutting the Council’s efforts to provide the right to counsel and due process to its residents.

Our concerns are not hypothetical: ICE detainees were transferred en masse from the San Francisco Bay Area after Contra Costa County ended its contract with ICE.[37] An ICE spokesperson spoke unequivocally that advocates should have anticipated this result:

“When we were notified of the decision, ICE made it abundantly clear in July that it would have to now rely on its national system of detention bed space to house detainees. When ICE is not allowed to work with local jurisdictions to house detainees closer to their families, friends and attorneys, farther facilities must be utilized.”[38]

We recommend that the Council work with your counterparts in New Jersey (the Hudson, Bergen and Essex County Freeholders) and urge them to continue their contracts with ICE while improving conditions for detainees, including improving access to medical care, visitation and other measures. We also ask that you encourage Freeholders to require that jails identify people in immigration detention who have upcoming court dates so that NYIFUP can go to the facilities prior to the first court date to do screenings and intake, a process that has been fundamentally undermined since ICE has decided not to bring detained people to their hearings at Varick Street Immigration Courthouse. These and other informed advocacy efforts in collaboration with service providers such as NYIFUP could go a long way towards supporting immigrant New Yorkers and ensuring they are able to take advantage of NYIFUP representation.

Intro 1092 – Prohibiting NYC from Contracting with Entities Engaged in Immigration Enforcement

BDS strongly supports Int. 1092, a Local Law to amend the Administrative Code of the City of New York, in relation to prohibiting New York City from contracting with entities engaged in immigration enforcement. Documented recently reported that the city currently has two contracts with ICE totaling close to $500,000 to allow ICE agents access to the NYPD firing range and parking for the ICE New York field office.[39] The two contracts in particular only serve to facilitate ICE arrests in immigrant communities across the city. For all of the reasons articulated earlier in our testimony, BDS calls on New York City to immediately end all contracts with ICE.

Resolution on Federal Bill H.R. 6361 – Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act

New York City Council Resolution 2018-2722 (preconsidered) calls on the federal government to pass the Establishing a Humane Immigration Enforcement System Act (H.R. 6361). The bill would establish a Commission tasked with establishing a humane immigration enforcement system, terminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and officially document the long history of abuses perpetrated by ICE.

While BDS supports many of the goals of HR 6361, we believe that it falls short in rectifying the harm caused by ICE because it would not repeal IIRIRA, significantly reduce funding for immigration enforcement, or increase due process protections for immigrants. We urge the Council to go a step further and urge Congress to make these changes, as well. Simply abolishing ICE, as we noted above, will not end the harm perpetrated by the federal government against our immigrant communities.

  • Conclusion

Thank you for inviting me to testify and for considering my remarks today.

Please reach out to Andrea Nieves, Senior Policy Attorney at anieves@bds.org or 718-254-0700 ext. 387 if you have any additional questions.


[1] See, e.g., American Civil Liberties Union, ICE and Border Patrol Abuses, available at https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights/ice-and-border-patrol-abuses.

[2] Learn more at Vera Institute of Justice, SAFE Cities Network, https://www.vera.org/projects/safe-cities-network.

[3] Vera Institute of Justice, Report Summary: Evaluation of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project: Assessing the Impact of Legal Representation on Family and Community Unity (Nov. 2017), available at https://www.vera.org/publications/new-york-immigrant-family-unity-project-evaluation.

[4] Bryan Baker, Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2016, Department of Homeland Security Annual Report (Dec. 2017), available at https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/enforcement-actions

[5] D’Vera Cohn, How US Immigration Laws and Rules Have Changed Through History, Pew Research Center RSS, (Sep. 2015), available at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/09/30/how-u-s-immigration-laws-and-rules-have-changed-through-history/

[6] See, e.g., Kenneth C. Davis, Anti-Immigrant Rage Is Older than the Nation Itself, NPR, May 25, 2010, available at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126565611.

[7] Donald Kerwin, From IIRIRA to Trump: Connecting the Dots to the Current US Immigration Policy Crisis, Journal on Migration and Human Security, (2018).

[8] Pub. L. No. 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207 (1986.)

[9] Pub. L. No. 99-603, 100 Stat. 3349 (1986).

[10] Patricia Macías-Rojas, Immigration and the War on Crime: Law and order politics and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. J. on Migration & Hum. Sec., 6, 1, (2018).

[11] Robert Adelman, et al., Urban Crime Rates and the Changing Face of Immigration: Evidence Across Four Decades, Journal of Ethnicity In Criminal Justice. 15 (2016).

[12] Bobby Hunter & Victoria Lee, Dismantle, Don’t Expand: The 1996 Immigration Law, Immigrant Justice Network and NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, (2017). available online at https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/wp-content/uploads/1996Laws_FINAL_Report_5.10.17.pdf

[13] Pub. L. No. 104-132, 100 Stat. 1214 (1996).

[14] Cohn, How US Immigration Laws and Rules Have Changed Through History.

[15] Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105 (1996).

[16] Hunter & Lee, Dismantle, Don’t Expand.

[17] Pub. L. No. 104-208, 110 Stat. 3009-546 (1995)

[18] Juliet Stumpf, The Crimmigration Crisis: Immigrants, Crime, and Sovereign Power, 56 Am. U. L Rev. 367 (2006).

[19] Kerwin, From IIRIRA to Trump.

[20] Statement of Shawn Blumberg, Broken Windows Policing and Protecting Immigrant New Yorkers, Feb. 21, 2017 available online at http://bds.org/wp-content/uploads/2017.2.21-Statement-by-Brooklyn-Defender-Services-on-Broken-Windows-Policing.pdf

[21] Hunter & Lee, Dismantle, Don’t Expand.

[22] Macías-Rojas, Immigration and the War on Crime.

[23] Id.

[24] Please see our previous testimonies before the City Council, available on the Brooklyn Defender Services website at www.bds.org/#policy.

[25] See, e.g., Immigrant Defense Project, Press Release: IDP Unveils New Statistics & Trends Detailing Statewide ICE Courthouse Arrests in 2017, available at https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/wp-content/uploads/ICE-Courthouse-Arrests-Stats-Trends-2017-Press-Release-FINAL.pdf.

[26] Immigrant Defense Project, ICEwatch: ICE Raids Tactics Map (July 2018), available at https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/wp-content/uploads/ICEwatch-Trends-Report.pdf.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Kavitha Surana, How Racial Profiling Foes Unchecked in Immigration Enforcement, ProPublica, June 8, 2018, available at https://www.propublica.org/article/racial-profiling-ice-immigration-enforcement-pennsylvania.

[30] Saenz, March 15, 2017.

[31] Testimony of Andrea Saenz, Presented before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration Oversight Hearing on the Impact of New Immigration Enforcement Tactics on Access to Justice and Services, March 15, 2017.

[32] Testimony of Nyasa Hickey, Presented before the New York City Council Oversight Hearing on the Impacts of the Trump Administration Family Separation Policy on New York, July 12, 2018;

[33] New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Detained and Denied: Healthcare Access in Immigration Detention (2017), available at http://www.nylpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/HJ-Health-in-Immigration-Detention-Report_2017.pdf.

[34] Human Rights First, Ailing Justice: New Jersey, Inadequate Healthcare, Indifference, and Indefinite Confinement in Immigration Detention (Feb. 2018), available at https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/Ailing-Justice-NJ.pdf.

[35] Id.

[36] Matt Katz, Religious Leaders Sue to End Hudson County’s ICE Contract, WNYC News, August 26, 2018, available at https://www.wnyc.org/story/religious-leaders-sue-end-detention-ice-immigrants-hudson-county-jail/.

[37] Tatiana Sanchez, Transfers of Contra Costa ICE Detainees Spark New Concerns, The Mercury News, Aug. 24, 2018, available at https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/08/24/transfers-of-contra-costa-ice-detainees-spark-new-concerns/.

[38] Id.

[39] Felipe De La Hoz, Exclusive: City Council Bill Calls for Ban on All Contracts With ICE, Documented, Aug. 28, 2018, available at https://documentedny.com/2018/08/28/exclusive-city-council-bill-calls-for-ban-on-all-contracts-with-ice/.




Kelsey De Avila, LMSW – Jail Services Social Worker


Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Criminal Justice and Women

Oversight Hearing Examining Sexual Abuse and Harassment in City Jails 

September 6, 2018

My name is Kelsey De Avila, and I am a Jail Services Social Worker at Brooklyn Defender Services.  Thank you for this opportunity to address the Council on the sexual abuse and sexual harassment that too many of our clients suffer in our city jails. BDS provides comprehensive public defense services to more than 30,000 people each year, thousands of whom are detained or incarcerated in the city jail system either while fighting their cases or upon conviction of a Misdemeanor and a sentence of a year or less. BDS’ Jail Services Division provides supportive services and direct advocacy on behalf of our clients in Department of Correction (DOC) custody. This testimony is composed primarily of the accounts of our clients whose voices are underrepresented at today’s hearing.

There should no longer be any question that rape and sexual violence are real and serious problems in our jails that demand attention. Whether a person is detained pre-trial and presumed innocent, as is the majority of the population in city jails, or enduring incarceration as a punishment or perhaps awaiting transfer to upstate prisons, they are New Yorkers – sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Yet they are often called “packages” or worse by DOC staff, and treated accordingly. We continue to urge the City to end the inhumane treatment of incarcerated New Yorkers and close the jails on Rikers Island. If the City cannot keep people in its custody safe, policymakers in all levels of government should question whether such custody should even be permitted.

The ‘Deep-Seated Culture of Violence’ at DOC Includes Sexual Violence

On August 4, 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (USAO SDNY) issued a report to DOC regarding its Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) investigation of the jails on Rikers Island. The investigation infamously found a “deep-seated culture of violence [that] is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities.” However, directly impacted people, attorneys and social workers who serve them, and indeed the Department itself all know that this culture extends throughout the City’s jail system, and includes sexual violence. (In a footnote, the report noted that the investigation did not focus on sexual assault, but raised concerns that DOC was underreporting it.)[1] A former federal jail warden and then-member of the Board of Correction (BOC) once said in a public meeting, in regards to staff sexual assault at Rikers Island, “As long as we are going to have prisons we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons.”[2] A Department of Justice survey found that, on any given day, 50 of the 800 people held at the Rose M. Singer Center (Rosie’s) were being sexually victimized the staff, making it one of the worst jails for such abuse in the country.[3] (The daily population at Rosie’s is now closer to 530.) Nevertheless, in each and every news article about an allegation of sexual misconduct by DOC staff, the agency’s response invariably includes its supposed “zero tolerance” policy. Whatever the policy, in practice, the DOC fails to protect people and hold officers accountable.

According to a June 2018 report by the agency, allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment increased by nearly 40% from 2016 to 2017 (823 to 1151), which the agency attributes to improved reporting mechanisms and other reforms implemented as part of an effort to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). We do not accept this explanation as fact, given the enormous increase in reports amidst declining overall admissions and average daily population. Even so, staff sexual misconduct and harassment comprise 70% of these allegations. Allegations of staff sexual misconduct increased approximately 16% (322 to 374) and allegations of staff sexual harassment increased approximately 86% (232 to 432) during this period. At the time of the report, of the 823 allegations in 2016, the agency had only found three incidents to be substantiated. The vast majority of investigations (739) remained pending. In 2017, though the number of allegations increased, only one incident had thus far been deemed substantiated.  1112 investigations remained pending at the time of the report.[4]

This should be disturbing to the Council: Over a thousand cases are still pending, and DOC staff are allowed to remain employed despite pending allegations, and no action will be taken against them until the case is officially closed. Notably, our detained clients are subject to extremely punitive treatment and conditions – and exposed to this epidemic of sexual violence – while they fight criminal allegations against them.

Mr. C’s BDS attorney referred him to me after learning an officer had denied him food.  When I met with Mr. C, he reported that the officer denying him food was the same officer who, during a separate incarceration a couple of years ago, watched and encouraged the brutal rape of Mr. C by three other incarcerated men inside the bathroom of his dorm. Mr. C has since undergone surgery to repair the tissue damage done to him that night and has made multiple attempts at suicide by swallowing razors. Two years later, Mr. C was in the custody of the same officer. The officer remembered Mr. C and shared with other residents of the unit that Mr. C was raped repeatedly and would only address him as ‘pussy’ and ‘faggot’. Other staff regularly witnessed these comments but did not intervene. We reported the abuse to DOC and requested Mr. C’s immediate transfer to another unit, and were able to secure his release within a couple days. This officer continued to work for DOC following the incident.

DOC’s Failure to Comply with Minimum Standards

In 2016, pushed by survivors of Rikers Island, other activists, public defenders, and Office of the Public Advocate, the BOC adopted new rules to “detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment” in City jails. One of the new rules, for which we and others fought, was a requirement that DOC install security cameras on in its buses, where people in custody are particularly vulnerable, as part of a one-year pilot program. The Department had roughly two years to meet its obligations, including providing a written report on the efficacy of the pilot by September 1, 2018. (The pilot itself was to be instituted by July 31, 2017.)[5] As of this writing, DOC is in violation of this rule and recently requested a variance to allow for an extension of the deadline while it works to install cameras in one single bus.[6] The Council should note that BOC’s rule referred to the plural form of “vehicles” – not one bus.

Another BOC rule requires DOC to complete all investigations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations no later than 90 days from the Referral Date, absent extenuating circumstances outside of the Department’s control.[7] Although this rule became effective on January 2, 2018, as discussed above, the vast majority of investigations stemming from 2016 and 2017 remain pending. The lack of accountability at DOC, therefore, is not limited to a few bad actors, but rather is endemic to the agency.

Earlier on the day that Ms. A was raped, she had appeared in court with her lawyer.  After her appearance, she requested to leave on the 3 pm bus back to Rikers. While she was in transit, Ms. A was raped by a male officer at the back of the bus in a parking lot on Rikers Island, all while the driver of that bus sat and watched.  When she reported the incident, the bruises on her wrists and thighs were clearly visible. The two officers on the bus held Ms. A against her will and tortured her without anyone noticing or questioning the missing bus, the missing officers, the missing woman or why it took more than 10 hours for Ms. A to travel from court to her housing unit.

When she returned to her housing unit, a female DOC officer noticed that Ms. A was not acting herself and confronted Ms. A about her behavior. Ms. A felt safe with this female DOC officer and recounted the rape hoping for a safe way to report. In response, the female DOC officer told Ms. A that it would be safer if Ms. A reported it to her attorney, rather than the female DOC officer making a report. Ms. A took this to mean that the officer, herself, was afraid to report. Our client felt extremely vulnerable and alone during this time. Even the female DOC officer, an employee of the Department, seemed aware of the current culture of violence within DOC and unwilling or unable to fully protect the people in her custody.

We reported the rape to DOC and DOI and requested the latter, as an independent entity, investigate. We also reported it to the Bronx District Attorney’s office. For Ms. A’s safety we requested her transfer to another facility. There, she was placed in solitary confinement after spitting on an officer who was antagonizing her. To the best of our knowledge, the Bronx District Attorney’s office declined to investigate, DOI punted to DOC, and DOC’s investigation is ongoing while the officers involved continue to work for the Department.        

DOC’s Failure to Properly Investigate Allegations of Sexual Harassment and Abuse

As part of its internal reform process to comply with PREA, DOC increased the options for filing complaints, and increased staffing for the Investigations Division. Nonetheless, we have not seen a commensurate increase in protections for people in custody or accountability for staff. DOC often fails even to take interim measures after allegations are reported. For example, one of the quickest ways to help protect people from harm, or continued harm, in jail settings is to transfer them to different units or facilities. This approach does not meaningfully address the root causes of jail violence, but it is an easily accessible tool for intervention in the moment. We often find that DOC only transfers people threatened with or victimized by sexual violence when we advocate on their behalf. Mr. W, a BDS client, was an exception, but only because he took extreme measures to advocate for himself:

Mr. W was raped by another incarcerated man on his housing unit. Mr. W took proactive steps and reported the rape to 311 and his housing officer. Despite his own self-advocacy, neither he nor the other man were moved. Our client continued to report the sexual assault to DOC officers and even a DOC captain, yet still was not moved. Mr. W was raped again in the same housing unit by the same man a week later. Investigators finally interviewed Mr. W, but despite their interaction, Mr. W was not separated from the man. Mr. W. was raped again. More than two weeks later, our client spit on a DOC officer and only then was he moved to another, more restrictive housing unit.  He knew that by committing an “assault” on DOC staff, he would finally be moved. It was an act of desperation after being repeatedly failed by those in power.

Regardless of the complaint mechanism they use, our clients who report sexual harassment or abuse are visited by members of DOC’s Investigations Division, who come in plainclothes and wearing badges. Everybody inside—incarcerated people and staff alike—knows them, making people who report extremely vulnerable to retaliation. DOC regularly fails to protect them, surely dissuading others from making reports.

Sexual Abuse, Cavity Searches and Broader Corporal Control

Among the many serious and life-altering harms of incarceration in New York City is the routine sexual degradation involved in contraband searches. Often, the searches, themselves, are deliberately punitive, used by staff not as a response to a reasonable suspicion of the presence of contraband but rather to assert authority and control or to “send a message.” Incarcerated people are regularly subject to cavity searches, which are susceptible to all manner of abuse.

Mr. L reported that he was sexually abused during a routine housing search. DOC officers entered his cell, yelling, only to rough him up before he was even fully awake. One officer then held Mr. L’s head down with one hand while using the other hand to sexually abuse him. Fortunately, our client felt safe enough after the incident to call 311 to report the incident. Mr. L had difficulty defecating after the abuse and reported that he was experiencing extreme pain and bleeding. Months after the abuse, our client still reported discomfort, continues to have difficulty sleeping and trusting others around him due to the trauma of this incident. 

The Council should recognize that the epidemic of sexual misconduct exists on a continuum of corporal control that deprives and dehumanizes incarcerated people. The power dynamics that make any and all sexual conduct between staff and incarcerated people coercive under the law play out in countless other ways, as well.

During a tour of the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, Ms. M shared her difficulty in getting extra toilet paper and feminine hygiene products from DOC staff.  She shared how she would have to beg officers for assistance, only to be treated with disrespect that made her feel less than fully human and ashamed. Ultimately, the jail controls the cleanliness, health, and feelings of self-worth for all incarcerated people.

Victimization of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

It is important for this conversation to include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This population is at particular risk for sexual victimization, and particular attention should be paid to their needs, even beyond the intake risk-assessment. We appreciate the work Correctional Health Services has done to better screen individuals who come into the custody of the Department and augment services for all victims of jail-based sexual trauma, but we know that too many incidents go undetected only increasing these clients’ risk for abuse.

Mr. D is a young man with moderate mental retardation as well as mental health issues.  During his incarceration, he was frequently the target of extortion and harassment.  Mr. D had trouble following the rules and was disliked by many correction officers. As a result, he never felt comfortable asking for their help, even in the most extreme of circumstances.  Mr. D learned to tolerate the abuse he suffered while incarcerated until he finally told us that what he described as “horseplay” had gone too far – he was being forced to endure sexual abuse by another person in his dorm – and was being ignored or undetected by staff. When we became involved, we were able to secure Mr. D’s transfer to another unit, and eventually out of jail.  

Conflicts of Interest in DOC Investigating Itself

Executive Order 16 states, “upon receipt of any information concerning corrupt or other criminal activity or conflict of interest related to his or her agency, the Inspector General of such agency shall report directly and without undue delay such information to the Department of Investigation (DOI), and shall proceed in accordance with the Commissioner’s directions.”[8]

Staff sex abuse is criminal behavior that should always be referred to and investigated by DOI. Currently, DOC is permitted to conduct investigations of sex abuse by its own staff members, as reported by the agency at City Council hearings and Board of Correction meetings.  In our experience, reports by our clients regarding sexual abuse by a DOC staff member are referred to both agencies, but DOI generally allows DOC’s Investigation Division to conduct the investigation. This is a blatant conflict of interest and may contribute to the shockingly small number of cases referred for criminal prosecution by DOC.

The Charter of the City of New York (the City Charter) makes clear, “The jurisdiction of the commissioner [of the Department of Investigation] shall extend to any agency, officer, or employee of the city.”[9]  DOI thereby has jurisdiction to conduct investigations related to allegations of sex abuse by New York City Corrections Officers, which would resolve the abovementioned conflict of interest.  Furthermore, the City Charter requires that “upon completion of the investigation, [the Commissioner of DOI] shall also forward a copy of his [or her] written report or statement of findings to the appropriate prosecuting attorney.”[10]  Currently, there is no written policy that states what constitutes an appropriate case for DOI to defer investigations to DOC’s Investigation Division. The Council should push the agency to establish clear boundaries that would allow appropriate and thorough investigations without bias.


Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Visitors

Earlier this year, the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) published a report, ‘It Makes Me Want to Cry’: Visiting Rikers Island, documenting the horrific experiences families, friends, and others face when visiting Rikers Island to support a loved one. The report, which is based on interviews with more than a hundred visitors, makes clear that the epidemic of sexual misconduct extends to the staff who screen visitors. The acts described in the report include being told to “show [their] underwear not only in front of officers but in front of other visitors; forced to strip down to their underwear, [told to] show COs their genitals, [forced to] suffer through inappropriate touching of their breasts and genitals, and [forced to] undergo cavity searches.”[11]

In an NBC I-Team report, Stephanie Sanchez reported that she was ordered into a bathroom in the Brooklyn House of Detention and threatened with arrest if she did not comply with an officer’s order. “By the time she was finished touching the top, like my breasts weren’t even in my bra. My bra was all the way up to my neck,’ Sanchez said. ‘She (the officer), went in, she went inside, she moved around, touched my private area. And I just had to stand there. I was in shock,” she said.

Shauntay Mayfield was also threatened that if she did not consent to the search, officers would contact ACS. “They told me, Oh, ACS is going to get involved. I know you have kids. You want to go home to them tonight?” she recounted.

BDS stands with JAC and their recommendations in order to hold the Department accountable and keep visitors safe from sexual abuse by DOC staff. As an initial step, the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations should launch an independent and transparent investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse and unlawful strip searches.

As stated in the NYC JAC report, “visiting is a crucial piece to improving reentry and decreasing recidivism, improving jail safety and the mental health of incarcerated people, and helping families who deal with the collateral consequences of incarceration to maintain ties with their loved ones.” Yet, “many visitors report that COs’ behavior as a major concern and hindrance during visits” and fear and “risk of sexual abuse during unlawful strip searches” is a major barrier to visiting. Forcing people to choose between risking exposing themselves to possible sexual abuse or not visiting a loved one is disgraceful and the City should no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of the torture we are putting the families and loved ones of incarcerated people through.


If the people exposed to the soaring rates of sexual harassment and abuse in City jails were treated that way by any other government agency Councilmembers and other policymakers would have long ago called for the resignation of the Commissioner as well as fundamental structural reforms, if not elimination of the agency. Abuse complaints are rising and the City has no plan to improve accountability for staff. Even with the highly-publicized incidents of sexual abuse of visitors, DOC has reported no disciplinary actions against staff. Imagine what is happening behind the gate. Hundreds of complaints languish for years without any results or immediate changes to protect victims. DOC officers, who hold the profound responsibility for the care and custody of incarcerated people and yet use their position to abuse, are still working in extremely powerful positions for the Department. The policies in place are important, but they mean very little when DOC does not enforce them. No matter what side of the gate they are on, everyone deserves to be safe from sexual harassment and abuse.  The City must finally address the underlying failures of the Department of Correction or remove people from its custody.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my comments. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Jared Chausow, our Senior Policy Specialist, at 718-254-0700 ext. 382 or jchausow@bds.org.

[1] Jocelyn Samules et al., RE: CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island (USAO SDNY 2014), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-sdny/legacy/2015/03/25/SDNY%20Rikers%20Report.pdf.

[2] Nick Malinowski, NYC Official Says Rape Is Inevitable at Rikers Island: If True, We Cannot Send Anyone There, Huffington Post, Dec. 6, 2017 at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-malinowski/nyc-official-says-rape-is_b_10600320.html.

[3] John H. Tucker, Rape at Rosie’s, New York Mag., http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/06/rape-at-rikers.html.

[4] NYC Dep’t of Corr., NYC Board of Correction Sexual Abuse and Sexual Harassment Minimum Standards 5-40 Assessment Report (2018), https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/downloads/pdf/Annual-Sexual-Abuse-and-Sexual-Harassment-Assessment-Report.pdf.

[5] NYC Bd. of Corr., Notice of Adoption of Rules (2016), https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/boc/downloads/pdf/Jail-Regulations/Rulemaking/2016-PREA/PREA%20Rules%20-%20FINAL%20FOR%20POSTING%2011.10.16%20w%20certification.pdf.

[6] NYC Dep’t of Corr., Letter to NYC BOC re: Minimum Standards §5-04(g) “Supervision and Monitoring” – Transport Vehicle Camera Pilot Program and Written Report (2018), https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/boc/downloads/pdf/Meetings/2018/September-14-2018/NYC%20Department%20of%20Correction-BOC%20Sexual%20Abuse%20and%20Sexual%20Harassment%20Minimum%20Standards%20-%205-04%20-%20Transport%20Vehicle%20Camera%20Pilot%20and%20Report.pdf.

[7] NYC Bd. of Corr., Notice of Adoption of Rules (2016), https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/boc/downloads/pdf/Jail-Regulations/Rulemaking/2016-PREA/PREA%20Rules%20-%20FINAL%20FOR%20POSTING%2011.10.16%20w%20certification.pdf.

[8] NYC Executive Order 16 Section 4(e)

[9] Charter of the City of New York, Chapter 34 § 803(d)

[10] Id. § 803(c)

[11] NYC Jails Action Coal., ‘It Makes Me Want to Cry’: Visiting Rikers Island (2018), http://nycjac.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/VISITING-RIKERS-ISLAND-JAILS-ACTION-COALITION-1.9.18.pdf.



August 28, 2018

Contact: Daniel Ball – (347) 592-2579 – dball@bds.org




(Brooklyn, NY) – Today, Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director and Founder of Brooklyn Defender Services, issued the following statement:

“Brooklyn Defender Services stands in solidarity with the people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and immigration detention centers who, last Tuesday, began a 19-day nationwide strike demanding more humane living conditions, an end to prison slavery, sentencing and litigation reform, an end to racial disparities in sentencing and parole decisions, restoration of Pell grants, full voting rights, access to rehabilitation, and more.  The people we represent suffer unspeakable horrors in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers that strip them of their dignity, from physical, sexual, and verbal abuse to prolonged solitary confinement, unsafe and unsanitary food, and a lack of access to decent health care. We strongly support their demands and we urge all levels of government to make them a reality.”



People incarcerated across the United States are peacefully protesting from August 21 to September 9, the latter date being the anniversary of the Attica uprising. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, other incarcerated organizers and allies have issued a list of ten demands and four non-violent actions for the 19-day strike. Brooklyn Defender Services has received no information from current or former clients of actions taking place in New York State facilities.

About Brooklyn Defender Services

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is a non-profit public defense office in Brooklyn, New York. BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and other civil legal services, and social work support to over 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.




Nigeria’s The Nation featured BDS Immigration Supervising Attorney Nyasa Hickey and Immigration Senior Staff Attorney Hannah McCrea, both currently representing BDS in Nigeria as part of an international legal exchange funded by the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program. Nyasa and Hannah have been presenting at a national conference, attending court proceedings and researching the provision of pro bono and indigent legal services across Nigeria.



This year, the New York State Legistlature passed a bill (S.2412) to create the first-in-the-nation Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. This bipartisan legislation establishes a statewide commission based on the successful New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

New York State leads the country in overturned wrongful convictions, falling only behind Texas, yet very few prosecutors have ever been held accountable. The New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions determined that more than half of New York’s wrongful convictions involved misconduct by a government actor. We have seen this firsthand in Brooklyn; cases from Kings County make up 25 percent of New York State’s wrongful convictions.

  1. Read our letter to Governor Cuomo here. 
  2. Sign and share this petition urging the Governor to sign the bill.




For immediate release…

Contact: Bianca Tylek, Corrections Accountability Project, (646) 677-8610, BTylek@urbanjustice.org


***Joint Statement on a Victory Against Jail Profiteering***

“Advocates Hail the Passage of Intro. No. 741-A to End the Kickbacks from Jail Calls and Make All Calls from Rikers Free”

July 18, 2018 – Today, the New York City Council passed Intro. No. 741, legislation sponsored by Speaker Corey Johnson, which requires the City to provide telephone services to people in the custody of the Department of Correction for all domestic calls at no cost to them or their receiving party. In addition, the City will be prohibited from receiving or retaining any revenue for the provision of these services.

The following statement can be attributed to campaign organizers and supporters: Brooklyn Defender Services, Color of Change, Corrections Accountability Project, VOCAL-NY, The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, The Fines and Fees Justice Center, JustLeadershipUSA, Urban Justice Center, Center for Media Justice, Center for Popular Democracy, Human Rights Defense Center, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, The Legal Aid Society, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), Prison Policy Initiative, and United Church of Christ, OC Inc..

“As advocates for the elimination of financial profits from the injustice system, we welcome the City Council’s passage of legislation to ban City revenue from jail phone calls and make these calls free for people and their loved ones. Thousands of people in NYC jails are there solely because a court set money bail beyond what they could afford, 88% are Black and/or Latinx, and nearly all experience deep poverty. Now, they will be able to maintain crucial lifelines to loved ones in the community without sacrificing scarce dollars for the profits of jail profiteer Securus. Furthermore, the years of multi-million dollar contractual kickbacks to New York City from this corporation will finally come to an end. Altogether, the enactment of this legislation, which was sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, will save impacted families approximately $8 million dollars every year – money that can go toward essentials and remain in their communities. We urge Mayor de Blasio to sign it into law. Furthermore, we will hold the Board of Correction accountable to ensuring that this new policy around accessing free phone calls is thoroughly and safely implemented in city jails.”

Background: In the community, people can access free telephone services via the LinkNYC kiosks or internet calling apps. Meanwhile, the City collects $5 million in annual commissions—with one of the highest commission rates in the country—from a contract with Securus that extracts more than $8 million in calls and fees from people in City jails.[1] Upon discovering this revenue in the City budget, advocates, including formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, and public defenders mobilized to put an end to it. The bill now goes to Mayor de Blasio for signature.



[1] https://www.prisonphonejustice.org/



Augustin Sajous had just finished a hearing on fare evasion and low-level drug possession last fall when federal ICE agents snatched him off the sidewalk in front of criminal court in downtown Brooklyn. The 60-year-old Haitian man is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who spent the next nine months in custody in a New Jersey detention center, as officials sought his deportation to a country where he no longer has family or friends.

“Every day, people were getting deported, and every day, more people were coming in,” said Sajous, who came to the U.S. when he was 14. “I was a little anxious to get out.”

His case was the first to be considered in New York since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March that there is no requirement to provide bond hearings for detained immigrants if the government can justify continued detention. Despite the ruling, Sajous won release on $3,000 bond last month following a prolonged court battle.

Read more at WNYC.org.




Yung-Mi Lee – Supervising Attorney, Criminal Defense Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on the Justice System

Hearing on Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Criminal Court

June 21, 2018

My name is Yung-Mi Lee and I am a Supervising Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy in nearly 35,000 cases in Brooklyn every year. This includes thousands of people arrested for possession or sale of opioids, and many more fighting deportation, eviction, or a loss of parental rights due to opioid-related allegations or convictions. I thank the New York City Council, Committee Chair Rory Lancman, for inviting us to testify on the opioid crisis in criminal court.

The overdose epidemic is among the most deadly forces in our city today, warranting a strong response from policymakers. According to the New York State Department of Health, 8,444 New Yorkers overdosed on opioids in 2016. 1,769, or 20 percent, of those overdoses occurred in New York City.[1] Importantly, this epidemic is driven not only by opioid use but also by drug mixing, often including a combination of opioids and stimulants. BDS applauds Mayor Bill de Blasio for embracing the Safer Consumption Space model sought by people who use drugs and harm reduction specialists. The four Overdose Prevention Centers, if approved by the New York State Health Department, will build on the successes of other such sites around the world and save lives. We hope it becomes an example for the rest of the country, as public health initiatives originating in this city often are. Crucially, these centers must not become dragnets for the NYPD, which could seriously undermine their efficacy.

BDS believes a public health approach is essential to reducing the harms of addiction and recreational drug use alike. The criminal legal system is simply ill-equipped to prevent drug use, meaningfully reduce the supply of drugs, or – most important – help keep people who use drugs as safe as possible and minimize harm to their families and communities. The City’s and State’s discordant efforts to meld the enforcement and public health approaches often result in unnecessary and counterproductive incarceration and criminal records, social stigma, and tragic deaths.


Pressed by formerly incarcerated people, grassroots activism and legal experts to reverse skyrocketing incarceration rates for drug offenses, New York City became a pioneer in the creation of drug treatment courts in the early 1990’s and remains one of the jurisdictions with the most developed post-arraignment diversion system. While these courts may in fact reinforce the problematic drug prohibition model, they have helped reduce jail and prison admissions and sentences. A landmark report, Better by Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration While Increasing Public Safety, details and attempts to quantify the impact of the these courts, including Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program, originally operated by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office but later replicated throughout the state. For example, “the proportion of felony drug cases that resulted in a prison sentence fell from 21 percent in 1997 to an all-time low of 11 percent in 2007.”[2] Largely as a result of decreased drug arrests and an increase in diversion, the City jail population began to fall from its peak in 1991. State prisons followed suit in 1999 (72,899 in 1999 to 49,424 as of June 1, 2018), with the majority of the decline in admissions coming from New York City. It is important to remember that this decline was relative to the surging incarceration rates under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, during which the state prison populated increased by a factor of seven. The decline has only been by about one-third since then.[3]

In Brooklyn, there are four specialized courts for drug offenses and/or criminal conduct linked to substance use disorders: Screening Treatment & Enhancement Part (STEP), Brooklyn Treatment Court (BTC), Misdemeanor Brooklyn Treatment Court (MBTC), and Brooklyn Mental Health Court (MD-1).

     a. Screening Treatment & Enhancement Part (STEP)

STEP primarily handles non-drug non-violent felony cases (such as grand larceny, unauthorized use of a credit card, burglary in the 3rd degree) for those who have substance use disorders. The court part also accepts felony drug cases for so-called non-violent predicate felony offenders, or people who have one or more prior non-violent felony conviction in the last ten years. Based upon a clinical evaluation, the participant may receive intensive outpatient or residential treatment. Successful completion of the program results in a dismissal of the case. Unsuccessful completion results in a jail sentence up to one year if the person does not have a prior felony.

STEP also handles Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) cases. DTAP is the first prosecution-led residential drug treatment diversion program in the country. The program diverts nonviolent felony drug offenders with a prior felony conviction to community-based residential treatment. [4] DTAP requires an upfront plea to a felony charge that will dispose as a misdemeanor or an outright dismissal if they complete the program. DTAP requires a longer residential treatment mandate – usually up to two years, although I once had a client who stayed for three years because he had no place to live. The mandate also requires six months of outpatient treatment with full-time employment and a stable residence. DTAP is thus difficult for our clients to successfully complete. Notably, DTAP mandates are not based on a clinical determination but are based solely on the participant’s criminal record. If our clients cannot complete the program, they are sentenced to prison time that varies based on the case. Once in prison, they will no longer have access to medication-assisted treatment.

     b. Brooklyn Treatment Court (BTC)

BTC handles felony drug cases for those who are not predicates. This form of treatment requires the consent of the prosecutor. However, if the prosecutor does not consent, BTC has the capability of offering treatment through judicial diversion which was established under the Drug Law Reform Act of 2009.

     c. Misdemeanor Brooklyn Treatment Court (MBTC)

MBTC is designed for people who repeatedly cycle through the criminal legal system on low-level charges due to their addiction. The court has recently evolved to be less punitive toward our clients, with shorter treatment mandates and shorter jail sentences for those unable to adhere to them. Without these shortened mandates and shorter jail alternatives, court administrators, the judiciary, treatment staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys found that defendants were avoiding this option, preferring to take a plea to the underlying misdemeanor with a sentence of time served (or even short jail sentences). Those who complete the treatment program get a full dismissal of their case.

     d. Brooklyn Mental Health Court (MD-1)

MD-1 serves those with serious and persistent mental illness and offers community-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration. A special program is offered for those with dual diagnoses for serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

     e. Concerns with the Existing Treatment Court Models

All of the Brooklyn treatment courts refer participants to “outside” or “contract” substance abuse treatment programs. These programs also have patients who have no court mandate and who are not criminal justice involved. However, the overall quality of these programs varies. Some programs cannot take participants who have a diagnosed mental illness while some are better equipped to treat our clients with dual diagnoses.

New York City has limited residential treatment bed capacity, which can mean wait times of a few weeks or more for our clients who are interested in treatment. Sometimes, if the client is incarcerated, the longer waiting periods discourage a person from choosing the treatment program option. More funding for such programs could increase capacity and reduce waiting periods, but it should only be provided with oversight to ensure that recipient programs are actually addressing the need.

All of these courts have contributed to positive case outcomes for individual BDS clients, but in general many BDS attorneys are skeptical of STEP and BTC, and in some cases even MBTC. All of the treatment courts allow for relapses and recurring relapses, but our clients face increasingly harsher sanctions with each additional relapse. Our clients often find such coercive treatment regimens to be less effective than voluntary alternatives that do not involve such sanctions.


Many of the felony drug cases[5] we see originate with predatory so-called “buy-and-bust” operations. These buy-and-busts typically involves undercover officers, generally dressed like homeless people and acting desperate, asking or pleading with people who, themselves, are truly drug users, to procure drugs for them. Based on the cases we pick up in court, officers appear to target people who are struggling with either addiction or mental illness or both. Some are what we call “no cash, no stash” cases, in which police do not recover buy money or drugs. Our clients often tell us they procured the drugs out of a sense of obligation to help somebody in need, perhaps in exchange for a single hit. They are almost never actual drug dealers pursuing customers. In some cases, people have walked away with the buy money, and police then arrest them for theft.

Even if law enforcement interventions were an effective tool to reduce the supply of drugs, this predatory NYPD tactic cannot be said to “get drug dealers off the streets.” Police argue that they use this tactic to gain intelligence from people who use drugs to climb the ladder to find higher-level drug suppliers, but we have seen no evidence that buy-and-bust tactics lead to the arrest and prosecution of drug suppliers.

In our experience, prosecutors generally pursue the charges in these cases.

The harm of buy-and-bust operations is that they maliciously target the most vulnerable New Yorkers, those who are homeless, clearly suffering from a substance abuse disorder or mental illness, and prey upon them in order to bump up their arrest numbers. Rather than setting people up for arrest and jail time, NYPD should be working with other city agencies to connect people in crisis with voluntary drug treatment, mental health support, housing and other services.

In one buy-and-bust case that was highlighted in the New York Times, a juror actually wrote a letter to prosecutors in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, saying it was “approaching absurd that you would use the awesome power of your office to represent the people of New York County, along with it and the court’s limited resources, on such a marginal case.”[6] This juror raises a valuable point: Why is the City wasting its resources on targeting the most vulnerable among us, rather than supporting them? If police can identify people struggling with addiction, why not provide them with information on treatment options or other services?


For many years, the NYPD has targeted areas surrounding methadone clinics and needle exchanges for enforcement and harassment. This is widely known in public health circles, and police have discussed reforms, yet aggravatingly, the practice persists.[7] Often, the arrests involve deceptive buy-and-busts or other predatory tactics that sometimes result in serious charges against people who are actively and even successfully turning their lives around. Furthermore, it is impossible to know how many people have shied away from medication-assisted treatment and other widely-accepted and publicly-funded harm reduction resources due to fear of police presence. These harm reduction resources they are infringing upon have been proven to save lives, which suggests that police interventions may in fact be resulting in uncountable deaths.

When discussing the frequency of this practice, one of our attorneys said: “Everybody’s arraigned a guy who’s been arrested outside a methadone clinic. Usually, it’s a Friday and the guy’s got enough for the weekend.”


Research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that legally protected marijuana dispensaries were associated with reductions of 16 to 31 percent in opioid overdose deaths. (HealingNYC seeks to reduce opioid deaths by 35% over 5 years.) Other experts have argued that the criminalization of marijuana led to the over-prescription and over-use of opioids and eventually the epidemic that we are struggling to address today. Simply put, marijuana seems to be a safer alternative to opioids in pain management, but criminalization undercuts that benefit. However, even under the new reduced arrest policy announced earlier this week by Mayor Bill de Blasio, vulnerable New Yorkers will continue to face arrest and possibly prosecution for personal marijuana use. This should end. BDS is proud to support the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) StartSMART campaign to legalize and sensibly regulate adult marijuana use and sale across New York State. The immense harms of prohibition and discriminatory enforcement practices, balanced against the opportunity for advances in racial justice and economic empowerment envisioned by this campaign, warrant urgent action by state legislators and the Governor. The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), S.3040/A.3506, sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, would create a well-regulated and inclusive marijuana industry, improve public safety, and meaningfully repair some of the damage caused by existing drug laws, in addition to helping to address opioid epidemic.


Although it was marketed as a public health program, approximately half of the city funding for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to combat the opioid epidemic, HealingNYC, is allocated to the New York Police Department (NYPD). This is an attempt to pair a public health approach to problematic drug use with increasingly aggressive law enforcement tactics – a strategy favored by many policymakers today, but one that does not appear to be rooted in modern science.

We appreciate that Mayor de Blasio is spearheading an effort to expand the use of life-saving naloxone kits and medication-assisted treatment, as well as other important initiatives to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental illness. However, we are concerned this important work could be undermined by regressive law enforcement strategies that further marginalize, stigmatize and ultimately criminalize the very people the Administration seeks to support. Indeed, as Crain’s reported last year, “nearly half of the $143.7 million budgeted for HealingNYC through fiscal year 2021 will go to the NYPD, mostly to step up arrests of drug dealers.” Much of the funding provided to the police was reportedly to be used to investigate overdoses with the goal of bringing criminal charges against people alleged to have supplied the drugs.[8]

There is a growing recognition among policymakers across the country, many of whom may struggle with addiction themselves or have friends or family members who struggle with addiction, that criminalization and the resulting marginalization are an ineffective and, in fact, often very dangerous approach to drug use. These dangers are only heightened as police and prosecutors pursue homicide-like charges or other very serious charges against alleged suppliers when overdoses do occur. In at least one case, NYPD worked with federal law enforcement agencies, leading to a federal prosecution of a man who had shared drugs, at below cost, with his best friend, who tragically overdosed and died. This strategy aligns with an alarming national trend toward expanded use of drug-induced homicide prosecutions identified by the Drug Policy Alliance in a recent report, An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane.[9] Among many other serious risks, experts have noted that increased enforcement can discourage people who witness overdoses from calling 911 because suppliers are often close acquaintances and may even be the witnesses, themselves.

Portugal’s model for drug policy suggests that we may be able to dramatically reduce overdose deaths and other serious harms related to addiction through a careful and deliberate decriminalization of the use and possession of all drugs coupled with an aggressive public health strategy. In that country, heroin use has been cut by an estimated 75% and, more importantly, overdose deaths have plummeted. Portugal has the lowest rate of drug-induced death in Western Europe – less than 2% of the rate in the United States. In light of the overdose epidemic, lawmakers should seriously study this model and import its successes where possible.

Even if a greater investment in law enforcement efforts against suppliers were an effective approach, the Council should consider whether it makes sense for those funds to come from initiatives like HealingNYC or rather be diverted from other NYPD functions. For example, the most common drug arrest charge in 2016 was for low-level marijuana possession (18,136) and, as referenced above, Mayor de Blasio recently committed to reducing this number. At an April 22, 2017 New York City Council Committee on Public Safety hearing, then-NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said of the Department’s response to the epidemic: “Our focus is not on the individual addict. Our focus is on the street level as well as interdictions coming into the country.” Arrest data provided by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services does not support this statement. The most common drug arrest charge in 2016 was low-level marijuana possession, with 18,136 arrests. The next most common NYPD drug arrest charge, or fifth most common arrest overall, in 2016 was low-level non-marijuana drug possession, or Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 7th Degree, with 16,630 arrests. The most common drug sale arrest charge was Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the 3rd Degree, with 5,628 arrests, or approximately one-sixth of the number of low-level drug possession arrests.

When analyzing the merits of drug enforcement and coercive treatment systems like drug treatment courts, it is essential to always consider what the funding required by these approaches could do to address the underlying causes of addiction and problematic drug use, such as lack of access to mental health care in the community.

As a public defense organization, Brooklyn Defender Services is principally concerned with the direct impacts of drug laws and enforcement on our clients and their families and communities. That said, we recognize that the fiscal and economic impacts of drug policy do in fact play a major role in their daily lives. For example, most of our clients or their children attend or attended public schools with inadequate funding. According to the New York State Board of Regents, schools are owed billions of dollars in funding under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, with the majority owed to schools with high populations of Black, Latino and immigrant students.[10] Without the resources for a State Constitutionally-mandated “sound basic education,” many of our public schools have infamously become pipelines to prisons and jails. If funds currently spent on drug enforcement were instead reinvested in school-based mental health clinics and restorative justice programs, school environments would improve and administrators and teachers would be better able to address any behavioral problems without calling 911 or issuing suspensions and expulsions. If funds currently spent on overtime for police officers who make buy-and-bust arrests near the end of their shifts were instead reinvested in making substance use disorder treatment more widely available, perhaps overdoses would decline rather than increase or plateau at record-high levels.

The fact that drug prohibition is the status quo should not exempt it from close scrutiny. This hearing is a critical example of such scrutiny. These resource allocations expand the disparities in health, economic success, and liberty in our society.


(All names have been changed.)

Jake was a 40 year-old with a series of prior arrests. He was making progress in overcoming his heroin habit through his participation in a local methadone program in South Slope, Brooklyn. His mental health had deteriorated in tandem with his drug use. An undercover police officer disguised as a homeless man rolled up to him one day, begged him for heroin, and promised to give him a cut of the money. Jake was not interested in selling drugs, but acquiesced, bought him a bag, and was arrested. Ever since, all of his progress against his addiction has stalled. He worries about whether he will be evicted from NYCHA, where he cares for his ailing mother full time. He has now lost trust in himself and his ability to gain sobriety, suffering from severe anxiety and depression. He may go to drug treatment court, but at best it will restore him to his former path toward success, and at worst it will result in a sentence to upstate prisons, where he will have no access to medication-assisted treatment.

David was a 21 year-old with severe cognitive impairment (an IQ of 55) that qualifies as moderate mental retardation. He had struggled with heroin addiction since he was 16. He was living at home with mom in Bay Ridge addiction when he was arrested at 21 for petit larceny after stealing from her to buy drugs. The judge at arraignments set bail set and he then took a plea with a full order of protection to get out of jail. He was forbidden from having any contact with his mother, which resulted in a series of contempt charges, on which a BDS attorney represented him, when he violated the order. His mother never wanted the order and asked for it to be withdrawn, but the District Attorney fought to keep it in place because they deemed his offense elder abuse. He was forced to stay in a shelter. The judge ordered regular treatment, but with his cognitive condition, he did not have the wherewithal to tackle addiction himself. He could not even answer the intake questions. His mom had been his only support. After completing a certain amount of treatment, the judge would agree to lift the order of protection; in other words, his mother could not legally assist her son until he completed his treatment and he could not complete his treatment without her. Seeing no other options, David’s BDS attorney and social worker regularly went with him to the methadone clinic. Ultimately, after the case had been open for two years, the judge realized how limited he was, recognized his hard efforts, and accepted his partial compliance with the program, resolving the case with a conditional plea to misdemeanor contempt with a limited order of protection for five years. Unless his mother makes a serious allegation against him, they can remain together.

Francis was found after he overdosed in a public bathroom and, after being revived, was charged with misdemeanor drug possession. With several other misdemeanor cases open, he continued to suffer from substance use disorder. He acquired a gun owned by a family member and intended to sell it for drug money but was caught and arrested for criminal possession of a  weapon in the 2nd degree – a C violent felony. He ultimately pled to an E felony with two to four years in upstate prison. He was denied a treatment alternative because his was technically a violent crime.

Anthony, a 46 year-old, was charged with a violent felony for an alleged stabbing. He did not remember the incident. He had used heroin for more than two decades and had been incarcerated for most of his life. Because of the seriousness of the charge, the judge set bail $300,000 and he was sent to Rikers Island. During his time there, which lasted nearly a year, he was not allowed into any treatment program because he had been charged with a violent crime. Our social workers often find it difficult or impossible to get our clients into such programs for the same reason. Another common reason for such denials is an allegation that the person is a member of a gang, a specious and questionable designation that should have no bearing on access to treatment.

Carlos was an older man with a heavy file, which is indicative of a long history of criminalization. As is often the case with such people, his is a record of mostly misdemeanors. He was ensnared in a buy-and-bust operation and charged with felony possession with intent to distribute. The prosecutor found the arresting officers’ documentation deficient and dismissed the felony charge, leaving only the misdemeanor drug possession charge for residue on a crack pipe found in Carlos’ pocket. He was released from court with a sentence of time served and, as always, a mandatory surcharge that will likely go unpaid, damaging any credit he might have had. His parting words to his BDS attorney were, “I have a crack problem. When are they going to stop this?”


BDS is grateful to the Council for hosting this critical hearing and shining a spotlight this issue. Thank you for your time and consideration of our comments. We look forward to further discussing these and other issues that impact our clients. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Jared Chausow, our Senior Policy Specialist, at 718-254-0700 ext. 382 or jchausow@bds.org.


[1] New York State Department of Health, New York State – Opioid Annual Report (October 2017), available at https://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/opioid/data/pdf/nys_opioid_annual_report_2017.pdf.

[2] Judith A. Greene & Vincent Schiraldi, Better by Half: the New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration while Increasing Public Safety, 29 Fed. Sentencing Reporter 22, 27 (2016), available at https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/ocpa/cms/files/criminal-justice/research-publications/fsr2901_04_greeneschiraldi.pdf.

[3] New York State Corrections and Community Supervision, DOCCS Fact Sheet, June 1, 2018, available at http://www.doccs.ny.gov/FactSheets/PDF/currentfactsheet.pdf.

[4] Prosecutors may also, at their discretion, allow people to participate in DTAP who are charged with or have previous convictions for technically violent felonies, if the underlying conduct of the violent felony was not actually violent and no one was injured. A common example of this is burglary in the 2nd Degree when somebody steals a package from an empty foyer in a residential building.

[5] Most of these cases are charged with felony drug possession intent to distribute (PL 220.16) or felony drug sale (220.39).

[6] Joseph Goldstein, Undercover Officers Ask Addicts to Buy Drugs, Snaring Them but Not Dealers, N.Y. Times, April 4, 2016, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/nyregion/undercover-officers-ask-addicts-to-buy-drugs-snaring-them-but-not-dealers.html.

[7] John Knefel, The Common Cure for Heroin Addiction is Also a Magnet for Police Harassment, Buzzfeed, Feb. 19, 2015, available at https://www.buzzfeed.com/johnknefel/how-police-harassment-at-methadone-clinics-makes-quitting-he?utm_term=.rj94qpORg#.ekNOjm12P; see also VOCAL-NY, Beyond Methadone: Improving Health and Empowering Patients in Opioid Treatment Programs (2011), available at http://www.vocal-ny.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Final-Methadone-Report1.pdf.

[8] Caroline Lewis & Rosa Goldensohn, Will stepping up drug-dealer arrests help alleviate the opioid crisis? Crain’s N.Y. Business (2017), http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20170522/HEALTH_CARE/170529996/nypd-gets-biggest-share-of-new-city-funding-to-fight-opioid-overdose-deaths (last visited May 30, 2017).

[9] Lindsay LaSalle, An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane (Drug Policy Alliance 2017), available at http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/dpa_drug_induced_homicide_report_0.pdf.

[10] Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign for Fiscal Equity V. State of New York (2006), https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/campaign-fiscal-equity-v-state-new-york.



Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) strongly supports A.11013/S.8925, a bill to protect people from warrantless civil arrest in courthouses.

Since the beginning of this year, Brooklyn Defender Services has had approximately 30 of our criminal defense clients arrested by ICE in or outside the courthouse or in the community. Our immigrant clients are rightly terrified to appear in court, whether as defendants, witnesses or as friends or family members accompanying loved ones.

Our clients are not the only immigrants targeted for arrest by ICE in our courthouses. From 2016 to 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests in and around New York State courthouses increased 1200%. Twenty-eight percent of the undocumented immigrants targeted had no prior criminal history. The majority were reporting to court on low-level offenses, many for traffic violations.[1] The legislature must act to protect immigrant New Yorkers from unlawful arrests and targeting by ICE in and around our courts.

Read our Memo of Support here.

[1] Immigrant Defense Project, Press Release: IDP Unveils New Statistics & Trends Detailing Statewide ICE Courthouse Arrests in 2017 (Dec. 31, 2017), available at https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/wp-content/uploads/ICE-Courthouse-Arrests-Stats-Trends-2017-Press-Release-FINAL.pdf.



Comments by:

Catherine Gonzalez, Staff Attorney


Written with: Saye Joseph, Policy Associate, and Jared Chausow, Senior Policy Specialist

Presented before

NYS Department of Financial Services and NYS Department of State

Listening Session on Abuses by the Bail Bond Industry

June 11, 2018


My name is Catherine Gonzalez and I am a staff attorney in the Criminal Defense and Padilla units at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS is one of the largest legal services providers in New York City, representing approximately 35,000 low-income Brooklyn residents each year who are arrested, facing child welfare allegations or deportation. BDS also provides a wide range of other services to our clients, including housing, education, employment and immigration legal assistance and advocacy. I thank the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) and the Department of State (DOS) for this opportunity to testify about the immense harm of commercial bail bonds on our clients, their families and communities. Ultimately, the State should work toward abolishing this predatory and unnecessary industry. My comments will center the stories of the people we represent.


The commercial bail industry serves no legitimate purpose and should be abolished. We echo the call of New York City Comptroller Stringer for the total abolishment of commercial bail bonds.”[1] There is no place for for-profit actors in determinations of liberty, including during the pre-trial period when people are presumed innocent.

Approximately 16,000 people are detained in local jails across New York State every day because they cannot afford to pay bail. Though New York’s bail statute provides judges nine different options for bail, including options that do not require the defendant to pay anything upfront, the nearly invariable practice of judges is to offer people accused of crimes the most onerous and ultimately punitive choices: Pay the full amount now or visit a bail bondsman. (I can recall only one case in which a judge allowed for a partially secured bond.) A recent report published by the Lippman Commission, empaneled by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to investigate our City’s criminal justice system and develop a plan for the closure of the jails on Rikers Island, demonstrated that judges and prosecutors rarely spend any time considering the defendant’s ability to pay.[2] Therefore, most of our clients for whom bail is set in any amount default to spending an uncertain amount of time on Rikers Island because they are unable to pay, even if the bail is set as “low” as $100.[3] Convicted of no crime, thousands of people are detained in New York City jails until and unless their loved ones can scrape together enough money to buy their freedom from a third-party whose only motive is profit.[4] This injustice fuels a thriving for-profit bail bond industry, in which defendants and their families are forced into predatory and often illegal financial agreements with little or no recourse.

Families in this situation pay a non-refundable portion of the total bail amount to a bail bond company, who then writes a bond for the full bail amount. Bail bond agents also require collateral, generally in the form of significant additional upfront money and/or property titles, and often charge additional fees. Finally, the agreement may incorporate additional terms and conditions, such as required check-ins and consent to surveillance.

While there are laws in place to regulate the charges imposed by bail bond companies, many companies violate the laws with impunity.  For example, the law imposes a cap on total premiums and compensation, excluding collateral that is slated to be returned at the close of a case, based on a formula laid out in the bail statute. In our experience in Brooklyn, many if not most commercial bail bonds charge premiums and fees that exceed the cap. Any such additional monetary charges are illegal, but are routinely charged by bail bonds agents.  . DFS does not take action to stop these illegal charges, in my experience. Collateral is unregulated, and may be extremely costly; its return to consumers is also not monitored or enforced by DFS. The additional terms and conditions may be extremely onerous but their enforcement by bounty hunters remains a legal grey area. In practice, bail bonds act as extortion—sometimes aided by violence—for an individual’s freedom.[5] Rampant abuse exists in part because bail bonds companies’ customers are among the most marginalized and disempowered New Yorkers and regulators have largely ignored this industry.[6] That said, predation is endemic to the industry and our criminal legal system’s reliance upon it, as even those transactions that are perfectly legal involve a significant transfer of scare funds from mostly low-income families to for-profit corporations.

Client Examples

These are just a handful of examples of the type of abuse and exploitation that our clients’ families face every day in Brooklyn when they seek a commercial bail bond for their loved one.

Ms. J went to Marvin Morgan Bail Bonds in Brooklyn to get her son out of Rikers Island. She was particularly nervous for him because it was his first arrest. The bond was set at $1,000, and according to state law, the company was allowed to charge her $100 in “premium or compensation” that she would never get back, regardless of the outcome of the case. The company instead charged her $300, comprised of $100 for the premium and $200 in “courier fees” to deliver the paperwork. The courier, Lightning Courier Service Inc, is registered with the New York State Department of State at the same address as Marvin Morgan Bail Bonds. (Other BDS clients have paid $1,000 in courier fees, including at least one who paid that amount to Lightning Courier Service at Marvin’s.) Marvin’s did not bail her son out of Rikers for five days. According to DFS, there is no statutory requirement that a bail bonds agent actually bail anybody out, and there is certainly no deadline by which they must act as they are paid to do. Finally, the day before Ms. J’s son was set to appear in court, he was bailed out. Our client went to his hearing and his case was dismissed. Nonetheless, Ms. J’s money will almost certainly not be returned to her. She has filed a complaint with DFS, but, like all commercial bail customers, she signed a large contract in a time of crisis, was not given a copy, and might have signed a document that, lawfully or not, contained provisions regarding the fees she paid.

$300 is a lot of money for the many extremely low-income New York families who enter our criminal justice system. But Ms. J’s loss was relatively small compared to that of other clients who have recently complained to us.

Ms. W went to ABC Bail Bonds in Brooklyn to get her son, who suffers from serious mental illness and addiction, out of Rikers. She paid $3,560 in premiums and fees on a $50,000 bond, or $300 over the legal ceiling. She also provided the deed to her house and paid $5,000 in collateral. Soon after her son was released, however, he was involuntarily committed to a state psychiatric hospital and missed a “check-in” with the bail company. Rather than call Ms. W and ask for her son’s whereabouts, the company “apprehended” him from the hospital, returned him to jail, and exonerated the bail in a non-adversarial hearing. They also kept Ms. W’s $3,560, along with her $5,000, which it took the liberty of converting from collateral into an “apprehension fee.” Ms. W complained to DFS and sought return of the money, but the agency rejected her complaint, sending a copy of a check made by the bail bond agent with a different person’s name in the memo.

One of our social workers recently accompanied a client, Ms. S, to Marvin Morgan Bail Bonds to observe the process of securing their services to get her son out of jail. The company charged her an illegally high sum, but she had called around and this company was the cheapest. Informed that the compensation was illegal, she asked, “What choice do I have?” She signed a 24 -page contract and paid as charged, including a $1,000 courier fee to Lightning Courier Service Inc.


Money bail is not a fair, effective, or necessary means to ensure a defendant’s return to court; the success of our charitable bail funds, whose clients have no financial “skin in the game,” proves this to be true. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund has paid bail for more than 2600 New Yorkers since 2015 and 95 percent of their clients have returned to court for all of their court dates.[7] For this reason, unsecured bonds, for which defendants pay nothing upfront, should be the norm under the existing bail statute. To the extent that courts and District Attorneys continue to require some form of upfront money bail, and continue to be permitted to do so under the law, there is no need to rely on commercial bonds. The better options is for people charged with a crime to pay a bond directly to the court, which would return that money in full if they are not convicted of a crime, or all but 3% if they are convicted, as long as they make their court dates. This has been the practice in Massachusetts for more than thirty years, which has effectively abolished the for-profit commercial bail bonds industry in that state.[8] This option exists in New York’s current bail statute, though most judges rarely if ever order partially secured bonds. Commercial bail is actually banned in Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, and pending legislation in New York would add our state to this list.[9],[10]

Commercial bail is a twisted form of insurance; consumers assume all of the risk and pay substantial premiums and fees. Frankly, this industry would not be allowed to exist were it not principally used by marginalized people. According to Comptroller Stringer, “in the last year alone…the private bail bond industry extracted between $16 million and $27 million in nonrefundable fees from New York City defendants and their families.” These are predominately low-income families of color, many forfeiting rent or food money to free loved ones from jail.

Until recent enforcement actions by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), DFS was the only watchdog for the industry. Complaints that we and our clients have submitted in the last several years have never yielded any sanctions and, more importantly, it is not clear that DFS has any interest in making whole those who have been victimized.

In truth, it is not only impacted individuals and families who are left feeling powerless when courts order commercial bail. As a public defender, I have little advice to give my clients and their loved ones with respect to bail bonds businesses. They want referrals, but no company can be trusted in this lax regulatory environment. All I can do is provide them with a pamphlet on bail paying that our office helped create with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund through the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and strongly urge them to get a copy of contracts and receipts. With liberty on the line, and sometimes just hours to pay before DOC’s bus is loaded and leaving the courthouse for Rikers Island, there is little opportunity to challenge bail bonds businesses’ wrongdoing. The City and State must take action, and courts should cease ordering commercial bail. This industry should be prohibited in the State of New York, as it is in other states.


Bail bond businesses commonly charge illegal fees and premiums in excess of the cap, yet DFS does not affirmatively take action against them and, at least in cases that we have referred the agency, does not even take reactive action. Companies commonly fail to post bail in a timely manner, leaving loved ones on Rikers Island for days, yet a representative of DFS once told my colleague that such delays are legal and, in fact, a bail bonds agent does not ever have to actually bail anyone out, under the law. They may convert money collected collateral into an unrefundable fee, or otherwise misuse this money. They may impose any and all conditions, as a for-profit entity, on New Yorkers’ liberty and a condemn people to jail for the most minor of violations while keeping some or all of their money. Most importantly, there is no effective mechanism for those who have been overcharged by bail bonds businesses to be made whole.

Absent any meaningful consumer protections from state regulators, the community is left to try to protect itself. Unfortunately, once we, as defense attorneys, identify a bad actor, we have no way of knowing which other storefront locations are operated by that actor. Moreover, even when a bad actor is pushed out, as happened in one case after decisive action by DCA, other bad actors are licensed and ready to take their place. In reality, there are no bail bond companies that we feel comfortable recommending to our clients or their families.


Brooklyn Defender Services’ recognizes and on a daily basis witnesses the deeply entrenched judicial practice of cash bail or bond as the only option for pre-trial release that reinforces the market for unscrupulous bail bondsmen. New York must shift the culture towards one that does not punish a person accused of a crime, but allows them to maintain their innocence unless proven guilty. Commercial bail is a gross distortion of justice. These patterns of abuse bolster our advocacy for abolishing commercial bail.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments and recommendations. If you have any questions regarding my testimony, or any issue, please contact Jared Chausow in my office at jchausow@bds.org or (718) 254-0700 Ext. 382.

[1] NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, The Public Cost of Private Bail: A Proposal to Ban Bail Bonds in NYC (2018), https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/the-public-cost-of-private-bail-a-proposal-to-ban-bail-bonds-in-nyc/.

[2] Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, A More Just New York City (2017), available at http://www.ncsc.org/~/media/C056A0513F0C4D34B779E875CBD2472B.ashx.

[3] Cherise Fanno Burdeen, The Dangerous Domino Effect of Not Making Bail, The Atlantic, April 12, 2016, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/the-dangerous-domino-effect-of-not-making-bail/477906/.

[4] American Civil Liberties Union & Color of Change, $elling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System (May 2017), available at https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/059_bail_report_2_1.pdf.

[5] See Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Shaila Dewan, “When Bail Feels Less Like Freedom, More Like Extortion,” NY Times, March 31, 2018,  available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/us/bail-bonds-extortion.html.

[6] New York City Bar, Report by the Criminal Justice Operations Committee, Criminal Courts Committee and Corrections and Community Reentry Committee: Recommendations Concerning the Bail Bond Industry in the State of New York (2017), available at http://s3.amazonaws.com/documents.nycbar.org/files/201744-BailBondIndustryNYS_FINAL_4.26.17.pdf.

[7] Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, https://brooklynbailfund.org/.

[8] Fred Contrada, “Bail bondsmen are a thing of the past in Massachusetts,” Mass Live, March 25, 2014, available at https://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2014/03/bail_bondsmen_are_a_thing_of_t.html.

[9] Alysia Santo, When Freedom Isn’t Free, The Marshall Project, Feb. 23, 2015, available at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/02/23/buying-time#.QBLGtAkcI; see also Justice Policy Institute, For Better or for Profit: How the Bail Bonding Industry Stands in the Way of Fair and Effective Pretrial Justice 4 (Sept. 2012), available at http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/for_better_or_for_profit_executive_summary.pdf.

[10] S.8146 (Benjamin)/A.10394 (Blake), available at https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/s8146.




Rebecca Kinsella – Social Worker, Criminal Defense Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Public Safety

Oversight Hearing on NYPD’s Gang Takedown Efforts

June 13, 2018

My name is Rebecca Kinsella. I am an Adolescent Social Worker at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), one of the largest legal service providers in Brooklyn. BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and tools for self-advocacy for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety and, in particular, Chair Richards, for holding this oversight hearing on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) gang takedown efforts.

My testimony today is about the mass surveilling of Black and Latinx communities via the NYPD’s gang database, the immense harm caused by a gang designation, and the need for alternative responses to problematic youth behavior. Currently there is no meaningful oversight and accountability for the NYPD gang database, no publicly acknowledged measures to ensure that people are not erroneously placed or kept on the database, no transparency on whether a person is on the database, and no remedy to remove one’s self from it. In response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, the NYPD has argued that it cannot tell New Yorkers whether they are in the database because that would reveal non-routine tactics.

NYPD uses arbitrary criteria to determine gang membership or affiliation such as living in a “known gang location,” apparel, scars, tattoos, hand signs, and relationships with “known gang members.” Significantly, commission of any crime(s) is/are not among the criteria. Therefore a teenager who lives in public housing and mimics his peers by showing hand signs in a Facebook photo with no connection to any criminal activity can be included in this database for the rest of their life without any due process protections.

In spite of the critical flaws which undermine its integrity, the gang database has devastating consequences for those listed, including heightened police harassment, unaffordable bail and elevated criminal sanctions in cases that may otherwise be dismissed, and possibly deportation for immigrant New Yorkers. This undemocratic policing tool exists at a time of precipitously declining violence and statistically marginal influence of gang motivations, as identified by the NYPD, on remaining violence. In these ways, the NYPD database and label as a gang affiliate recall McCarthyism, in which suspicions, and inconclusive and questionable evidence were collected and selectively distributed in order to penalize and even criminalize a person’s real or supposed association with a group, with no meaningful opportunities to challenge their designation. BDS urges an immediate elimination of this database. We also recognize the serious and lasting harm of violence within communities, but our relationships with impacted individuals and families and our systemic view of the problem brings us to a very different conclusion than the one drawn by the NYPD, namely that greater opportunity, not repression, military-style raids and mass arrests, is the solution.


As CUNY Law Professor K. Babe Howell wrote in her seminal 2015 report on gang policing, Gang Policing: The Post Stop-and-Frisk Justification for Profile-Based Policing, “After years of stopping suspicious people in high-crime areas, the NYPD is addicted to profile-based policing.” The U.S. District Court ruling in Floyd v. City of New York did not end the practice of stop and frisk or deem it unconstitutional. Rather, the Court ruled the probative cause being a racial profile was unconstitutional and as long as there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity the tactic of a stop and frisk is legally permissible. Since then, reported stop-and-frisks have declined, and the NYPD has doubled its anti-gang unit and increased monitoring, particularly via social media.[1],[2] (The Gang Division had already doubled in size shortly after class certification in Floyd.)

Many of the people we represent experience an alleged gang affiliation as a justification for a stop and frisk, other forms of police harassment like threatening phone calls and letters, and sometimes arrests for the paltriest of offenses like jaywalking. Once a person is “certified” by the NYPD as a gang member because they meet the criteria mentioned above, there is no established way to challenge that administrative designation in court or elsewhere. In other words, even those who are arrested and whose charges are later dismissed, or who complete a sentence of some kind, may still be subject to invasive and abusive police tactics indefinitely with no recourse. Unlike illegal stops and searches, which occasionally, though rarely relative to their extreme frequency, resulted in arrests that could be challenged in court, gang designations are subject to no public accountability.

It is no surprise that inclusion in the NYPD’s gang database is racially disproportionate. According to data turned over after FOIL requests submitted by Professor Howell, the NYPD added 21,537 people to its gang database between 2001 and August 30, 2013. 48% were Black and 44% were Latino; only 1% of the individuals added to the NYPD’s gang database were white.[3] Subsequent FOIL responses received by Professor Howell revealed that an additional 17,000 people were added to the database in the past four years, with less than 1% being white, and a majority being young people, as young as 13.

In the last several years, thousands of New Yorkers have been swept up in so-called “gang” raids or takedowns, nearly all of them Black and/or Latinx.[4] Many of these raids were conducted as joint operations by the NYPD and state and federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Council should consider the merits, if any exist, of this mass surveillance program. I will detail the harm.

Client Story: Patrick

 Patrick, 17, was arrested for alleged trespassing in his own public housing building. Before being taken away by police, his mother showed up with a copy of her lease that included his name. Nonetheless, police had him handcuffed and taken to the stationhouse. He spent approximately 50 hours in lockup and lineups before he was brought to arraignments on misdemeanor trespass charges. Because prosecutors have no case against him, his charges were quickly reduced to a misdemeanor, but the process has already punished him thoroughly. We believe the case against him is without merit and will end with either a dismissal or more likely, if he takes a plea, a non-criminal violation. We also believe he is on the NYPD’s gang database, and that is the underlying reason for his terrible ordeal.


 Gang allegations negatively impact determinations of bail and pre-trial release, plea deals, and sentences. Once a prosecutor alleges on the record that the accused is in a gang, the possibility that a judge will order release on recognizance is significantly reduced, often resulting in unaffordable bail regardless of the merits of the case or the absence of any past failures to appear in court.[5] That means potentially weeks, months, or even years in jails like Rikers Island or the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the horrors of which have been well-documented, while a person fights the charges against them. Such is the power of the gang label.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has found that “[t]hose who are taken into custody are more likely to accept a plea and are less likely to have their charges dropped.”[6] Indeed, there is ample research documenting that finding, and our experience at BDS affirms it. It should be obvious that anybody who has experienced even a day in Rikers, and who faces the prospect of weeks, months or years inside, is far more likely to accept a plea that involves an admission of guilt than somebody who is free until their trial, regardless of whether or not they are in fact guilty. District Attorneys consistently exploit this leverage.

Compounding the harm of this pressure to plea, prosecutors typically offer harsher deals, including longer jail or prison sentences, to people alleged by NYPD to be part of a gang. Alternative to incarceration programs are often off the table in these cases, as will be explained in the next section. In this way, gang designations contribute to mass incarceration.


For young New Yorkers facing charges of alleged gun possession or, in some cases, robbery in Brooklyn, there are only two available alternative to incarceration programs: Youth and Congregations in Partnership (YCP) and Project Redirect. Both are run by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s (DA) office, require upfront guilty pleas with severe suspended sentences, and allow for defendants to get their cases dismissed and sealed upon completion. YCP is the preferable option for our clients, as it is less onerous. This program requires young people to participate in weekly meetings with DA staff, attend school or work, and abide a curfew for a year. However, in our experience, adolescents who are alleged to be gang members are never offered this program, and instead are pushed to Project Redirect.

Project Redirect is a deeply problematic program whose secrecy rivals that of the gang database. Much of what we know about it is reported by clients who have participated, as defense attorneys are generally prohibited from accompanying them in discussions about the program with their prosecutors, with the occasional exception of a preliminary briefing. It appears to be geared toward turning our young clients into informants on their friends and neighbors, and mostly sets its participants up for failure. It also appears to be predicated on a measure of deception, as young people are led to believe the program consists of job placements, college admissions support, musical recording opportunities, when in reality they are being co-opted into participating in the gang policing effort.

Project Redirect is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to complete for most targeted participants. It lasts between eighteen months and two years and requires defendants to abide by a deeply regimented schedule of school, work, and meetings with the DA’s office, with deviations for tasks like purchasing milk for the family at a local bodega permitted only with prior approval, often via text messaging. They cannot have contact with others identified as fellow gang members, which may include family and any or all local community members. They are not permitted to use any social media, which for many is the only way to keep in contact with relatives around the world. They must wear button-down shirts, slacks, and ties every day. They cannot wear any so-called “gangsta’ type” jewelry. They are required to debrief, or inform on others. They must wear ankle monitors and their every movement is tracked by GPS. They receive home visits from Detective Investigators and must make regular visits to the DA’s office. Altogether, they are forced to walk around with giant targets on their backs, both as “snitches” to the community and as gang members to the local police officers. This dynamic makes them isolated and vulnerable to violence. Rather than addressing the social marginalization that pushes people into gang membership and possibly problematic behavior, it aggravates internal conflicts within communities. In our experience, almost nobody completes this program. Many “fail” for refusing to debrief. Others “fail” after being arrested for minor infractions in their over-policed communities. They are then sentenced to their “jail alternative,” namely several years in upstate prisons.

Client Story: Joshua

 Joshua, 17, has no connection with his biological family. He lives with a loving foster mom, who adopted him, and who has many other foster children to care for. As his social worker, I can assure you that he is brilliant and kind. Recently, he was stopped and frisked and found to be in possession of a loaded gun. For the first time in his life, he was arrested. He wants to get the charge dismissed so he can go to college, and he is willing to make real changes in his life, but the truth is he would likely be unable to complete Project Redirect, in part because he refuses to report on others in his community. Moreover, he is accustomed to taking care of himself, and the prospect of adhering to such strict and unforgiving scheduling and oversight is daunting. He can choose between this program, and all but certain and substantial prison time. He will almost certainly take the prison time and permanent criminal record, with all of its irreversible lifelong consequences.

Client Story: David

We began representing David when he was 18 years old. Approximately 3 years prior to our meeting David, he was shot not only in his own neighborhood, but on his own block, not far from his own front door. During the pendency of his case, David was indicted on allegations of gang conspiracy. Devon, who is an incredibly smart young man, would often engage in conversation with me about how lack of resources in the community drove the amount of time he and his friends would spend on the streets.

While he awaited a resolution on his cases, David was jailed on Rikers Island with peers in both of the groups ensnared in the gang conspiracy allegations. David later wrote me a letter while detained in which he outlined suggestions for resolving the disagreements that he and the other young men had, suggesting that prosecutors allow the young men to engage in mediation to prevent further violence by younger generations. Instead, they are all now in prisons upstate.


I understand this hearing is focused on the NYPD’s gang takedowns, but we cannot ignore the continuum of repression in which they exist, namely the criminalization-to-deportation pipeline. At BDS, many of our clients are trapped in the intersection of oppressive and discriminatory policies at the local, state, and federal level. They face criminal sanctions, the loss of their children, eviction, deportation, and more. So-called gang policing goes to the heart of all of these policies. Our immigration attorneys represent people in deportation proceedings, and we work with the real people and families behind the dehumanizing, misleading propaganda that ICE produces to justify its actions in our communities, particularly with respect to gang allegations. ICE uses the gang label to justify making courthouse arrests, jailing teenagers who came to this country seeking asylum and safety, ripping children from their parents’ arms, turning public schools into traps for immigrant students and parents, and indefinitely detaining people of all ages in jails.

Gang accusations by ICE are often based on standing with the wrong people, or wearing the wrong hat, or footwear. Again, these criteria do not amount to criminal conduct, but they yield extremely serious sanctions. In particular, our clients of Central American descent with no criminal records are profiled and treated as future criminals; this is undemocratic and wrong. It is important to remember that, when these massive raids happen, they can take promising young students, future college graduates, and primary income-earners from the community.

At this point, we do not know exactly what information the NYPD shares with ICE, either actively or passively, through shared use of various databases. That said, the damage to a person’s residency and immigration status wrought by aggressive prosecution or even mere arrests is clear. The NYPD collects arrestees’ fingerprints and shares them with the federal government, which uses them to track and arrest immigrants at home, at work, in court, or elsewhere and ICE uses state-level convictions to strip an immigrant of any lawful status or block them from obtaining any form of relief. Even immigrant New Yorkers on the gang database who have never been arrested may be a serious risk of harm. For example, the suspicion of a gang affiliation can be the reason a DACA application is denied since a lesser known criterion for removal from the program and country is if a person is a confirmed or suspected gang member and, again, we do not know what information the NYPD shares with ICE. In general, we are skeptical of the City’s insistence that any law enforcement intel is not shared with federal agencies.

Client Story: Jorge

The New Yorker reported on the story of a teenage boy we represented named Jorge. His story is all too familiar for young Latinx living in areas such as Long Island, young men who may also experience gang violence. Though Jorge was not a part of a gang or did not take part in any criminal activity, he was arrested by ICE. The reason for his arrest was a suspicion of gang membership, because his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend was a MS-13 gang member, he wore a Brooklyn Nets hat, and he was allegedly witnessed engaging in an unspecified gang handshake.[7] Though Jorge was released from the detention center after a judge ruled that the evidence against him was too weak, he now has to fight a protracted legal battle to gain any legal status to stay in the US.

Jorge’s case is representative of what the New York Immigration Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) team within our office is seeing in cases arising from Suffolk County. Most of our “gang” related cases come to us because the Suffolk County Police Department gives incorrect intel to ICE about our person’s affiliation to the MS-13 gang, often deriving from school-based surveillance. In the majority of these cases, this designation is without merit.


The discriminatory enforcement and use of a gang database and designation has led to unwarranted police actions directed to people engaging in innocuous behavior and associations. This is a draconian law enforcement and prosecutorial response to gangs, and gang problems. If a person did not have any gang affiliation prior to being arrested, they are likely to be initiated into one once they are sent to jail or prison as a survival mechanism.

Through our Jail Services team, we have seen the way the New York City Department of Correction classifies or misclassifies people as members of gangs and even shares that information with prosecutors. In fact, there is a long history of people being pressured to join gangs by jail staff, some of whom identify as members of gangs, themselves.[8] We have also heard from detained clients that jail staff instigate or manipulate gang violence as a tool of control. In one incident earlier this year, an officer engaged our client in a verbal argument, ultimately threatening to place him in a unit housing rival gang members. Making good on this threat, our client was later moved to a cell in the jail’s intake where he encountered approximately seven members of a rival gang. As planned, he was attacked and suffered two deep cuts on his face, requiring several stitches.

In the context of jail’s systemic deprivation and daily humiliations, people join gangs for access to basic necessities, like hygiene products. Gang designations by DOC also result in disqualifications from much needed rehabilitative programs such as Mentally Ill and Chemical Abuse (“MICA”) treatment or A Road Not Taken substance abuse program. Unfortunately, we have had several clients finally ready for treatment, but due to a supposed or actual gang membership, they were not able to receive treatment while in jail. These designations also often result in solitary confinement, which is widely recognized as a form of torture and which only adds to the pressure to accept plea deals in exchange for release.


  1. Abolish the NYPD gang database

Brooklyn Defender Services calls for the abolishment of the gang database. While we work towards the complete dismantling of this blacklist system, we again ask the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD to immediately conduct an investigation of the current NYPD gang database.

  1. Increase funding for organizations using the Cure Violence model

In addition, City Council should consider reallocating resources away from punitive responses to alleged gang membership toward interventions that have proven effective in reducing violence and other unlawful activity. Specifically, we advocate for an increase in funding for community centers, high-quality and engaging programming, and organizations using the Cure Violence Model.

In 2012, the city launched a Cure Violence initiative, but prevention and intervention efforts that could be effectively implemented to curtail gang violence are underutilized and underfunded. While certain programs that are used may reinforce marginalization through partnerships with the NYPD, others have proven to be successful in strengthening community-based safety and security. At its most effective, the strategy leverages the experiences of young men of color, many of whom are former gang members, to act as “credible messengers” of an anti-violence message and “violence interrupters” to prevent and reduce gun and gang violence. Community-based organizations working under the Cure Violence model employ “violence interrupters” and outreach workers from the community who have themselves experienced violence and also have strong relationships with young adults, community leaders, and service providers.[9] Violence interrupters stop conflicts before they happen, and outreach workers redirect the highest-risk youth away from life on the streets and the criminal system. All of this is done by unarmed community members, who value every person’s right to security and protection from harm.

  1. Reallocate resources to support, rather than profile, marginalized communities

The city should shift resources away from policing alleged gang or crew members and toward providing the support that individuals, families, and communities need to thrive. This strategy should focus on the root causes of social marginalization and any violent or otherwise problematic behavior.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. If you have any questions, please contact Saye Joseph in my office at scjoseph@bds.org or (718) 254-0700 Ext. 206.

This testimony was written with Saye Joseph, Policy Associate, and Jared Chausow, Senior Policy Specialist.


[1] N.b. The decline in reported stop-and-frisks from 685,724 to 22,565 in just a few years defies belief, and many have expressed skepticism about the reporting methods, but the consensus holds that use of this tactic has indeed declined. See New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-Frisk Data, available at https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data.

[2] K. Babe Howell, Gang Policing: The Post Stop and Frisk Justification for Profile-Based Policing, 5 Univ. Denver Crim. L. Rev. 1, 16 (2015), available at https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1067&context=cl_pubs.

[3] Howell, Gang Policing, 5 Univ. Denver Crim. L. Rev. 16. Eight percent of individuals added to the NYPD gang database between 2001 and August 30, 2013, were unidentified by race.

[4] Deam Meminger, NYPD Credits Reduction in NYC Murders to Gang Takedowns, NY1, Nov. 8, 2017, available at http://www.ny1.com/nyc/bronx/criminal-justice/2017/11/08/nypd-credits-reduction-in-nyc-murders-to-gang-takedowns.

[5] K. Babe Howell, Fear Itself: The Impact of Allegations of Gang Affiliation on Pre-Trial Detention, 23 St. Thomas L. Rev. 620 (2011) https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1090&context=cl_pubs

[6] Lindsey Devers, Ph.D., Plea and Charge Bargaining (U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance 2011).

[7] Jonathan Blitzer, How Gang Victims are Labelled as Gang Suspects, The New Yorker, May 6, 2012, available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-gang-victims-are-labelled-as-gang-suspects.

[8] Brad Hamilton, Brutal System of Teen Beatings Continues at Rikers Island’s RNDC Prison, NY Post, May 6, 2012, available at https://nypost.com/2012/05/06/brutal-system-of-teen-beatings-continues-at-rikers-islands-rndc-prison/.

[9] Samuel Lieberman, Former gang member try to snuff out violence in NYC, Vice, March 25, 2015, available at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kwxeam/former-gang-members-are-trying-to-snuff-out-violence-in-new-york-city-325.



The Protect Our Courts Act would prohibit federal immigration agents from making arrests without a judicial warrant and is the first-of-its-kind nationally

NEW YORK – June 5, 2018 – New York Assemblymembers Michaelle Solages, Carmen De La Rosa, Inez Dickens, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, advocates, and public defenders convened today in NYC and Albany to support the introduction of the Protect Our Courts Act (A11013). The groundbreaking new bill would prohibit Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from making civil arrests at New York State courthouses without a judicial warrant or court order. The protection extends beyond courthouse walls, and applies to arrests of individuals going to or leaving a court as well. To date, the bill offers the most comprehensive regulations on ICE courthouses arrests in the U.S.

“ICE’s increasing arrests and intimidation of our immigrant clients in and around our courthouses has compromised the administration of justice,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. “If the people we represent, as well as witnesses and victims of crimes, cannot safely appear in court to participate in the legal process then the integrity of the whole system is undermined. We strongly support the Protect Our Courts Act to end ICE arrests without judicial warrants in our courts.”

Sponsored by Assemblymember Michaelle Solages, the Protect Our Courts Act upholds a pillar of our democracy – equal access to our judicial system, regardless of immigration status – and will protect any party in a court proceeding in New York State, including victims, witnesses, and defendants attending a variety of courts, such as family and housing court.

Since the beginning of 2017, there has been an unprecedented 1200% increase in ICE courthouse arrests across New York State, effectively disrupting court functions, sowing fear in immigrant communities seeking justice, and undermining public safety. In fact, a statewide survey conducted by the Immigrant Defense Project found that more than two-thirds of advocates working with survivors of violence said they have clients who have decided not to seek help from the courts due to fear of ICE. Another report from the ACLU found that courthouse arrests were deterring immigrants from reporting crimes.

New York is leading the way in providing meaningful protection to its immigrant communities. In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an Executive Order banning ICE arrests in state-run buildings without a judicial order. The Protect Our Courts Act follows suit by helping ensure access to courts for all New Yorkers.

For an FAQ on the bill and stories of people impacted by ICE courthouse arrests, visit https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/ice-courts-nys/.

Read BDS’s Memo in Support of the bill here.



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Over the last two decades, the US federal government has engaged in mass immigration detention, creating a human rights crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people with and without lawful status are held in ICE jails every year, spread out over a network of hundreds of facilities. Immigration detention can last months or even years as people fight their cases. This is especially alarming given the brazen increase in ICE arrests.

In Lora v. Shanahan (2015), a case we litigated with the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, a federal appeals court ruled that people detained by ICE must be provided a bond hearing – in other words, a day in court before a judge who may release them to fight their case at liberty – within six months. However, this past week, the Supreme Court issued a devastating 5-3 decision in Jennings v. Rodriguez, which reverses these gains.

This decision means that immigrants, including asylum seekers and long-time green card holders like Alex Lora, may be indefinitely separated from their families, their jobs, and their communities, and held in detention centers without the opportunity to request release on bond.

BDS has served over 1,000 clients through our New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) and ensured that over 380 people were freed from ICE detention. This work is ongoing, as we continue our fight to protect and defend our neighbors.

While this decision was devastating, we will not be defeated. Along with advocates across the country, we will continue fighting for the liberty of those detained by ICE, including by challenging the federal government’s mass detention laws as unconstitutional.



Statement by Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, on NYS DOCCS’ suspension of its vendor-only package restriction pilot program

(Directive 4911A).

“We are pleased that Governor Cuomo directed DOCCS to rescind its package restriction rule, which had effectively prohibited care packages with most books and all fresh produce for people in three state prisons. This rule also increased the already high costs of having a loved one in prison, borne disproportionately by low-income people of color, as approved vendors’ prices were significantly higher than those of local small businesses. We urge DOCCS to continue to heed the call of incarcerated people, public defenders, NYC Books through Bars, and many others and refrain from implementing any new rule that further strains the connections between people in prison and their families.”



Governor Cuomo today announced groundbreaking steps towards reforming the most regressive policies in New York’s legal system, including ending monetary bail, improving the right to a speedy trial, removing barriers to re-entering society after conviction, and limiting asset forfeiture. In particular, BDS strongly supports the Governor’s commitment to improving transparency in criminal cases through fairer discovery laws. This represents an auspicious moment for criminal justice reform in New York.






Keren Farkas – Supervising Attorney, Education Unit


Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Public Safety

Oversight Hearing on NYPD’s School Safety’s Role and

Efforts to Improve School Climate 

November 21, 2017



My name is Keren Farkas and I am the Supervising Attorney of the Education Unit at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the Committee on Public Safety for holding this hearing and for providing us with the opportunity to testify.

BDS’ Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients. All of our clients are involved with the criminal legal or child welfare systems. A significant percentage are “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 teenage 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 commends the City Council for its continued attention to policing and discipline practices in our city’s schools. Since 2011, the Student Safety Act has provided invaluable insight into school practices, revealing the use of punitive discipline and police involvement at schools that, although lessening overall, continues to disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. Confronted with the data from that law, city agencies, namely the DOE and NYPD, are allocating more resources to school climate reform. Although we are encouraged by the recent investments in pilot positive school-wide programs and school-based mental health services, we believe that all of our city’s schools – especially those presenting with the highest rates of suspension, calls to EMS, and arrests – need access to models, such as restorative justice practices and collaborative problem solving, that can positively address student misbehavior and lessen reliance on police. Ultimately, children should never be placed in handcuffs or be subjected to interruptions in schooling as punishment.

More School Safety Officers and More Metal Detectors are Not the Answer

BDS shares the Council’s deep concern about any violence in schools. We represent thousands of school-age youth every year and many on our staff are public school parents. However, we firmly believe that school safety officers often function to escalate disciplinary conflicts in schools, rather than de-escalating situations and making the school environment safer for all. We believe that all steps towards a positive school climate will come from increased funding, training and support for educators and school-based mental health clinicians, not criminal enforcement responses.

Keeping schools safe is a uniformly shared objective; where people diverge is how to achieve it. BDS strongly believes that increased police presence and metal detectors at school are not the solution. In fact, we believe that such efforts undermine school safety.  School policing has not been found to prevent school violence.[1] Research actually demonstrates that police presence and metal detectors can significantly decrease a student’s perception of safety at school and, in turn, lead them to make unsafe choices to protect themselves.[2]  Further, school policing criminalizes common adolescent behavior, exposing young people to the criminal legal system, making them more susceptible to future contacts and the litany of collateral consequences.[3]

Beyond its questionable efficacy in deterring school violence, a strong law enforcement presence sets a tone of distrust in a school that is not conducive to learning.  Student police interaction is linked to poor academic performance and school disengagement.[4] The data mirrors our clients’ experience. We regularly meet with young people grappling with the harmful cumulative impact of disruptions to their education due to punitive discipline and the tensions associated with law enforcement presences in schools. Repeated contacts with school safety agents at school, often for non-violent adolescent misbehavior, have damaged not only their attitudes towards school, but their attitudes about themselves and their potential.

I also urge the Council to put incidents of school violence into context. Most incidents of student misbehavior do not involve weapons or guns making shootings or incidents involving dangerous weapons are extremely rare. Adolescent behavior, including misbehavior, is a function of immaturity, disability, mental health, trauma, bullying — all of which are not issues even the most well-meaning, thoughtful school safety agent is prepared to address. Likewise, they are better addressed by a restorative/preventive approach.

Training Trusted School Staff in Crisis De-Escalation & Restorative Justice Is the Answer

Our city’s schools need to shift to a culture where school staff, not police, take the lead in addressing and preventing student misbehavior.  That shift requires a thoughtful and systematic financial investment and philosophical commitment to whole-school approaches that promote positive school climates. When schools utilize preventive, restorative approaches that focus on conflict resolution and diffusing problems early, there is an increase in both student social emotional and academic growth. [5] Research shows that comprehensive, consistent implementation of approaches, such as conflict resolution and restorative justice, is also associated with positive teacher-student and student-student relationships, vital indicators of a school culture that can foster learning and safety.[6] The programs are also linked with a reduction in school violence.[7] Increasing the amount of guidance counselors and school based mental health clinicians has similarly been associated with the same benefits to school climate and student safety.[8] These are the resources our city’s students deserve.

Notably, these approaches are found to decrease future conflict, and do so more effectively than police intervention.[9]   This change is possible because the techniques actually teach students skills about conflict resolution and critical thinking, which they can draw upon when they will undoubtedly face future disagreements with others We must not forget that children and adolescents still have developing brains. All of our clients have also experienced trauma and/or poverty that have complicated their development of coping skills. A significant portion of our clients also have emotional disabilities.  When schools rely so heavily on school safety agents to address discipline in lieu of positive behavioral approaches, we are not only missing opportunities to instill tools to support their positive development, we can exacerbate the underlying behavioral or mental health challenges.

Client Stories

Unfortunately, we continue to hear instances where School Safety Agents (SSA) unnecessarily insert themselves in situations, or school staff reflexively call upon SSA’s to intervene. Recently, a teenage client with known mental health needs did not want to speak with a 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 teenage client had a disagreement with a school official and raised her voice. Three SSA’s responded and escorted her to the Assistant Principal’s office. In several instances with Kindergarten and 1st grade students with known emotional disabilities, schools have called SSAs and the police to restrain the children following a tantrum.

In these situations, and the many similar ones we see clients experiences, with the right training and staffing, the school could have responded to the situation without police involvement. We believe, and the data affirm, that police responses are comparatively rare or even non-existent in schools with more privileged populations.[10] For instance, with training in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention in Schools (TCIS) or an effective behavior intervention plan, the schools could have used positive practices to help the young children manage their behavior. With the teenage students, they could have utilized guidance interventions, such as restorative circles, where both parties could actively participate in addressing and repairing the harm. By doing so, both the harmed and the harmer can feel valued and learn perspective-taking, empathy, and taking responsibility.[11] Instead, when utilizing punitive measures, we alienate the harmer, often resulting in school disengagement – a reality we repeatedly see for our clients.

School Segregation and School Climate

We also urge the Council to consider how rampant school segregation may be impacting school climate, school discipline, and access to therapeutic or restorative responses to problematic behavior. The Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles issued a report in 2014 finding that New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, and that New York State has the highest school segregation rates.[12] Ample research has confirmed a connection between race and school discipline, with Black students as much as six times more likely to be suspended as compared to their white counterparts.[13] Relatedly, certain public schools with wealthier student populations bring in donor-driven Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) budgets of more than a million dollars, allowing for substantial discretionary spending on a variety of enrichment programs and activities, while others struggle to fundraise at all.[14] This dynamic undoubtedly contributes to inequality in school discipline. Notably, both of the wealthy Upper West Side elementary school featured in The New York Times article on wealthy PTAs had zero student removals in 2015, 2016, and to date in 2017, while a nearby elementary school serving many children who live in public housing (PS 191) reported 38, according to DOE data.

Policy Recommendations:

The City Council can play a critical role in fostering safer and more supportive school environments. We recommend that the Council enact many of the reforms called for by the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline. We focus on four today.

  1. Reduce law enforcement presences in schools

We encourage the City Council to reduce the presence of school safety agents and metal detectors in schools and reallocate the funds to positive behavioral approaches. Research not only indicates that law enforcement presence does not create safer schools; it can detract from a positive school climate and student’s social emotional and academic growth. Moreover, there are more effective methods that require increased funding.

  1. Expand positive whole-school approaches to address student behavior

We ask the city council to expand funding in whole-school positive methods, such as restorative justice practices, collaborative problem solving and therapeutic crisis intervention.  To effectively implement and realize the associated positive benefits in school climate, schools staff need training, ongoing professional development and full-time staff to facilitate whole-school adoption of the approaches and ensure staff receive ongoing coaching.

We are encouraged by the pilot programs, but want to emphasize that there are many more schools that require this investment to counter punitive school discipline tactics and overuse of police.  At BDS, we repeatedly encounter the same schools for inappropriate and overly punitive responses to student misbehavior, but none of them are on the current list of pilot schools.

  1. Expand access to school-based and school-linked behavioral health services

Particularly for our students facing the toxic stress of poverty, access to school-based or school-linked behavioral health supports is critical to student success and school safety.  We are encouraged by Thrive NYC and the Mayor’s office’s attention to mental illness, its impact on New Yorkers, and the need to invest in resources, such as a continuum of mental health resources for our city’s schools.  More funding, however, is needed to carry out the thoughtful recommendations of the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline and provide the range of staffing and services needed to ensure our city’s schools can address the root cause of misbehavior, starting with the highest need schools. We urge the city to expand financial investments to ensure our schools, particularly our highest need schools, have access to behavioral health consultants and on site mental health clinicians.

  1. Increase the number of school-based guidance counselors and licensed social workers

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, 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.

We urge the City Council to increase staffing and training for guidance counselors.


In short, we need to foster school culture that presumptively approaches all student misbehavior as teachable moments. We urge the city to support this goal by passing legislation to support schools to do so without police intervention.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Andrea Nieves in my office at 718-254-0700 ext. 387 or anieves@bds.org.


[1] See, e.g., Advancement Project, A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety (2013).

[2] See, e.g., Matthew T. Theriot & John G. Orme, School Resource Officers and Students’ Feelings of Safety at School, 14 Youth Violence & Juv. Justice 130-146 (2016).

[3] See, e.g., Trevor Fronius, Sarah Guckenburg & Anthony Petrosino, Policing Schools Strategies: A Review of the Evaluation Evidence, 8 J. Multidisciplinary Evaluation 80-101 (2012).

[4] See, e.g., Marilyn Armour, Restorative Practices: Righting the Wrongs of Exclusionary School Discipline, 50 U. Richmond L. Rev. 999 (2016).

[5] Thalia Gonzalez, Keeping Kids in Schools: Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline, 41 J.L. & Educ. 281 (2012).

[6] Anne Gregory & Dewey Cornell, Authoritative School Discipline: High School Practices Associated With Lower Bullying and Victimization, 102 J. Educational Psychology 483-496 (2010).

[7] David R. Karp & Beau Breslin, Restorative Justice in School Communities, 33 Youth & Society 249-72 (2001).

[8] Randall Reback, Schools’ Mental Health Services and Young Children’s Emotions, Behavior, and Learning, 29 J. Policy Analysis & Management 698-725 (2010).

[9] Jason P. Nance, Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, 48 Ariz. State L. J. 313 (2016).

[10] American Civil Liberties Union, Bullies in Blue: The Origins and Consequences of School Policing (2017), available at https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/aclu_bullies_in_blue_4_11_17_final.pdf.

[11] Trevor Fronius et al, Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools: A Research Review, February 2016, available at https://jprc.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/RJ_Literature-Review_20160217.pdf.

[12] John Kucsera & Gary Orfield, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation (The Civil Rights Project at UCLA 2014), available at https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder/Kucsera-New-York-Extreme-Segregation-2014.pdf.

[13] Alia Wong, How School Suspensions Push Black Students Behind, The Atlantic, Feb. 8, 2016, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/how-school-suspensions-push-black-students-behind/460305/.

[14] Kyle Spencer, Way Beyond Bake Sales: The $1 Million PTA, N.Y. Times, June 1, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/nyregion/at-wealthy-schools-ptas-help-fill-budget-holes.html.



The MSW Intern Program at BDS currently has 20 interns from New York University, Fordham University, Columbia University, Long Island University and Hunter College schools of social work. The Program also hosts one Pinkerton intern. Interns are placed in the Adult and Adolescent Criminal , Family Defense, Immigration, Policy and Jail Services Units. Interns work interdisciplinary with our staff attorneys and social workers to address the clients’ out of court needs and support positive legal outcomes. 



In conjunction with the release of Vera’s report on NYIFUP and the announcement of their SAFE Cities Network, Vox published an explainer on the project. Simply put, when people facing deportation in immigration court are given an attorney, they are much more likely to win their case. For every twelve immigrants winning their deportation cases in New York’s immigration court, eleven would have been deported without a lawyer. Hear our client Omar Siagha’s story here. 



The New York Times reported on a new lawsuit filed by five mothers in New York City who claim the the Administration for Children’s Services discriminated against them and other parents, violating federal law. Lauren Shapiro, director of BDS’ Family Defense Practice, says the city has failed to provide adequate programs and services that could assist intellectually disabled parents in caring for their children.

Read the full piece here.



Prosecutors have the power to end mass incarceration today. Learn what you can do to hold them accountable. Brooklyn votes Tuesday September 12! Over 1,000 elections nationwide in 2018.

Featuring the voices of: Deray McKesson (Black Lives Matter, Pod Save the People), Baratunde Thurston (Author, Comedian, Formerly The Onion, Daily Show), Adam Foss (Former Prosecutor), Nina Morrison (Innocence Project), John Pfaff (Professor, Author of “Locked In”), Brandon Buskey (ACLU), Josie Duffy Rice (Fair Punishment Project), Scott Hechinger (Public Defender, Brooklyn Defender Services).




The New York Times and the Marshall Project collaborated to shed light on New York’s unjust “Blindfold Law,” which allows prosecutors to withhold key evidence until trial.  To improve fairness in the criminal legal system and prevent wrongful convictions, Brooklyn Defender Services and a coalition of partners are working to repeal and replace the Blindfold Law with new legislation.



The Atlantic published an article on new legislation proposed by State Sen. Jesse Hamilton  and Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright that would decriminalize turnstile jumping. “Instead of making the fiscally sound and just decision to help enhance access through reduced-fare Metro Cards or free Metro Cards, we do the opposite: We arrest; we lock people up,”  said BDS’ Scott Hechinger.



The 2017 National Organization of Forensic Social Work Conference was held in Boston, Massachusetts from July 27-29.  The theme of the conference was Social Justice Rising.  Brooklyn Defender Services was represented at the conference and social workers from the Criminal Defense and Adolescent practices facilitated workshops.   The topics and social workers involved included:

Moving Social Justice Forward Through the Written Word: How to Advocate for Clients Who Commit Crimes or Moral Turpitude
Mary Coyle, Alexis Telfair-Garcia

Adolescence in the Age of Mass Incarceration: An Interdisciplinary Approach
Elia Johnson, Ronald Schneider, Brenda Zubay




Brooklyn Defender Services calls for the immediate passage of S.6176 (Little)/A. 588A (Rosenthal). The bill would require that all women who are incarcerated in New York State or City facilities have access to free feminine hygiene products.

Learn more about this critical issue in a recent N.Y. Times article featuring BDS Jail Services Social Worker Kelsey DeAvila.

A copy of our memo in support is here.



BDS, as a member of the ASFA Coalition, a coalition of child welfare agency, parent, and child advocate groups, signed a memorandum in support of S04833,A07554, a bill which makes two important modifications to the existing Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP ) statute that would allow greater number of children to be discharged from foster care to permanent homes under the program

Read the full memo here.



Brooklyn Defender Services has joined with legal service providers and non-profit organizations that work with child welfare-involved children and families from across New York State to preserve family connections after the termination of parental rights. This statewide coalition is calling itself the Preserving Family Bonds Coalition.

Research shows that children benefit from strong, healthy family bonds. Under current New York law, family court judges are not allowed to protect the rights of children to contact or visit with their biological parents and siblings after parental rights have been terminated, even when the court deems it in the best interest of the children. The Preserving Family Bonds Act (S.5790 – Savino/A.8020 – Joyner) provides that, if it is truly in the best interest of the children to stay connected with their families, then judges may allow them to do so, in a manner that is safe and appropriate.

View the Coalition’s Memo in Support of S.5790/A.8020 here.




The New York Bar Foundation recently presented a grant of $10,000 to Brooklyn Defender Services. The grant will be used to support their Veteran’s Assistance Program (VAP) to serve Brooklyn veterans with criminal justice involvement.   The program provides a comprehensive, client-centered approach to address criminal, civil and social challenges experienced by Brooklyn’s veterans, as well as critical issues related to their service that underlie or are impacted by the intersection of the criminal justice system and veterans’ lives.

“With the support of the New York Bar Foundation, BDS’ VAP will be able to serve greater numbers of veteran clients with screening and the additional social work services they need to help with their unique and complex cases,” states Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director.

In early 2017, The New York Bar Foundation allocated more than $640,000 in grants to organizations across New York to assist in:

  • Increasing public understanding of the law
  • Improving the justice system and the law
  • Facilitating the delivery of legal services
  • Enhancing professional competence and ethics

The New York Bar Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the New York State Bar Association. To learn more about The Foundation and how you can support its charitable programs, go to www.tnybf.org, phone 518-487-5651 or email nybarfoundation@tnybf.org.



We need Governor Andrew Cuomo to follow the lead of Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and enact real reform on recorded interrogations.


In support of Governor Cuomo’s Wrongful Conviction bill, Yusef Salaam and Fernando Bermudez have been sharing their powerful stories of being wrongfully convicted. Their horrific experiences unfortunately demonstrate the need for criminal justice reform in New York State. As two of the wrongfully charged and convicted “Central Park Five,” they know all too well the wrongful conviction rate in New York State is shameful, and action must be taken to implement meaningful change.

The failure to record interrogations and the lack of mandated best practices in identification procedures are two leading causes of wrongful convictions. Salaam and Bermudez are correct: we have a moral imperative to prevent wrongful convictions.

Read more on Gotham Gazette.



Being accused of a crime is just the beginning of “perpetual punishment”: a lifelong cycle of legalized discrimination, structural poverty, and re-incarceration. This cycle is kept in motion by 47,000 laws and regulations nationwide that restrict critical rights and opportunities.

But we know how to break the cycle: Remove the barriers and empower people.

Watch PERPETUAL PUNISHMENT, a short animated film by Molly Crabapple and presented by Brooklyn Defender Services and Vox:

Check out a follow-up Q&A with Wes Caines, the film’s narrator, on Vox Voices here.

Here in New York, there are five bills in the State Legislature that would dramatically change the punishment paradigm, and we need YOU to push your local representatives to get these bills enacted into law.

  • ‘Ban the Box’ on Job & Higher Education Applications – Pass A.3050 & A.1792/S.3740! Approximately 7.1 million New Yorkers, or 36%, have criminal records that affect them for the rest of their lives. Many people were convicted when young, or were incarcerated on bail and took a plea to get out. Many were never arrested again, years or even decades later. The conviction subjects these fellow New Yorkers to discrimination in employment and education that affects them and their families forever under current New York law and costs taxpayers money in the long run for public assistance and reduced taxes that these people would contribute if earning at their potential. These bills help to provide New Yorkers with a real chance at success by prohibiting job and higher education discrimination based on criminal convictions.
  • Reform NY’s Discovery Law to Prevent Wrongful Convictions – Pass S.3334! In New York, unlike most of the rest of the country, prosecutors and police are not required to provide police reports to the attorney representing a person facing criminal allegations at the earliest point so that defense counsel can investigate the case. This contributes to wrongful convictions and elongates the time our clients stay in jail waiting for a trial. The sad case of Kalief Browder is an example of someone whose time at Rikers Island would have been dramatically shortened or eliminated if his attorney had the information on the case. In civil cases and other cases in New York, “Discovery” is provided quickly and comprehensively. Yet we treat people who are in jail or facing serious allegations as if they do not deserve to have a fair defense.  It is no coincidence that New York is 3rd in the country in wrongful convictions. This bill will repeal an outdated law and replace it with a just and fair discovery law.
  • Sealing Criminal Records – Pass S.4027! New York is one of the only states in the nation with no sealing or expungement law, meaning even people convicted of the lowest level criminal offenses have a permanent criminal record. Many of the most debilitating collateral consequences of contact with the criminal justice system could be reduced through a robust sealing law that allows people to move beyond their punishment after a reasonable time period.
  • Seal All Low-Level Marijuana Possession Convictions – Pass A.2142/S.3809! In 1977, the NYS Legislature passed the Marihuana Reform Act, decriminalizing personal possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, but the law still allows for arrest and prosecution of those with marijuana in “public view.” In practice, low-level marijuana possession remains one of the top arrest charges in New York; more than 800,000 New Yorkers have criminal records for this offense in the last 20 years. 9 in 10 arrested for this offense are people of color, despite roughly equal rates of marijuana use across demographics. This bill would simply seal these records and remove the senseless barriers they face in education, employment, housing opportunities, and other state services. While there is not currently a bill pending, you should also ask your legislators to support full marijuana legalization!
  • Stop Criminalizing Workers for Carrying Their Tools Pass A.05667A/S.4769! Tens of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly people of color and/or immigrants, have been prosecuted for being in possession of—either on their person, or somewhere in their car or home—an instrument they use peacefully in the workplace, simply because it meets the technical legal definition of a “gravity knife.” True gravity knives, banned in New York in the 1950’s, have been extinct for some time, but the definition included in the law has allowed for the criminalization of workers—often stagehands, carpenters or stockroom employees—simply for carrying tools that they purchased at hardware and other common retail stores and that they use on their job. This bill would change the law to clarify that simple tools, used peacefully, are not weapons.

Find your NYS Legislator by entering your address here: www.openstates.org.

The best way to make your elected representatives hear you is to call, not email! Call them today and ask for their support for these three bills.



Runs With Scissors / Flickr

Village Voice: “Yes, New Yorkers CAN Be Deported For Jumping A Turnstile”

“With or without a detainer, ICE can arrest people at home, work, and court, detain them or release them, and give them a court date for deportation proceedings in which their charges are based on offenses like fare-evasion and counterfeit handbags,” [Andrea] Sáenz [supervising immigration attorney for Brooklyn Defender Services] says. “This absolutely happens to New Yorkers, even if the NYPD is not aware of it. This is a perfect example of how ICE detainers are only one link in a chain that ties our clients to the detention and deportation system.”

Read the full story in the Village Voice here.




BDS staff were on the ground at JFK airport all weekend, some going through the night without sleep, to stop the deportation of innocent travelers arriving from seven countries targeted by the recent executive order on immigration. Chaos and heartbreak erupted at the airport as passengers were refused entry after they had landed. Hundreds of people were detained by immigration officials simply because of their country of origin despite the fact that many were Lawful Permanent Residents with green cards and all had proper travel documents.

In an awesome display of organized legal resistance, attorneys, law students and immigration advocates from a dozen organizations and local law schools identified passengers by talking to families in the airport and filing writs of habeas corpus for each passenger. BDS attorneys Talia Peleg, Molly Lauterback, Maria Romani, Andrea Saenz, Nyasa Hickey, Zoey Jones, Bridget Kessler, Ellen Pachnanda, Alexandra Tawfik, Dorothy Hughes, and paralegal Brittany Castle put in long hours at JFK airport on Saturday and Sunday, advising family members and drafting Writs. At the same time, Policy and Advocacy team members Scott Hechinger and Jared Chausow supported our immigration team inside and outside the Eastern District of New York federal courtroom in Brooklyn throughout Saturday evening, keeping the office and public abreast of ongoing developments. Even after Federal Judge Donnelly ordered a stay of the Executive Order on Saturday, many passengers were still being detained. Our staff, already experienced in filing these Writs, wrote up papers, helped volunteer attorneys prepare documents and supported families waiting for news for days.

When all was said and done, BDS was instrumental in assisting three clients, Hamidyah Al Saeedi of Iraq and Zabihollah and Mahmood Zarepisheh of Iran, to finally reunite with their families at JFK Terminal 4 after more than thirty hours in detention. Their harrowing stories are chronicled in the New York Times here.

Dozens of BDS staff attended protests at JFK Airport, at the Cadman Plaza Federal Courthouse where the stay was argued, and in Battery Park the following day, all of which were instrumental in helping the legal advocacy efforts and showing the world that Americans stand for fairness. Thousands of people stood up to show that New Yorkers vehemently oppose this Executive Order. Crowds in airports throughout the country and around the world were critical in pressuring DHS to release the dozens of people detained at JFK’s Terminal 4 and other international terminals across the U.S. BDS is proud to stand with city and state elected officials, organizations and individuals that joined the protests citywide to show support for legal documented immigrants to travel to the United States.

Events of the past week have shown us that the legal landscape we operate within can shift very quickly. BDS has set up an emergency response fund that will enable us to remain available and decisive in these uncertain times to do what we do best: defend our clients’ rights in court. Click here to contribute.

Follow us on Twitter for live updates.



Our wish for you this winter is to help us keep our clients detained on Rikers Island warm.

We have created an Amazon Wishlist of the items that our detained clients need the most to make it through the winter. Please click on this link to our Amazon Wishlist to purchase socks, long underwear, and other much-needed essentials that we will deliver directly to our clients in Rikers this holiday season.

Why are we doing this? Thousands of people are detained on Rikers Island, and when temperatures dip they have no heat in their cells, are wearing paper-thin uniforms (often short-sleeved) and have one thin blanket to shield them from the cold.

In this time of giving, please consider helping some of our clients who are most in need.

If you have any questions, please contact Daniel Ball at dball@bds.org or (347) 592-2579.



Please consider calling Governor Cuomo’s office at (518) 474-8390 TODAY to politely urge him to sign the gravity knife reform bill (A9042A).

It only takes a minute and it makes a real difference. You’ll simply say your name, tell them you’re a New Yorker, and urge the Governor to sign the gravity knife reform bill to end the racist criminalization of working New Yorkers for carrying their tools. 




Lora is a famous name in New York immigration courts. Thanks to a case Alex Lora and his legal team at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) and New York University School of Law (NYU) brought to challenge his immigration detention, since 2015, all immigrants detained for six months in the Second Circuit now have the right to a day in court where a judge can determine if their continued detention is justified.

Next Wednesday, on November 30, 2016 the Supreme Court will hear Jennings v. Rodriguez, a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that could provide nationwide access to bond hearings to immigrants like Mr. Lora who are held in long-term detention.

Across the country, thousands of people languish in immigration jails as they await their court hearings. For Mr. Lora, mandatory detention cost him his job, his ability to provide for his family, and his two-year-old son, who was placed in foster care after Mr. Lora was taken from his home. Since his release, he has been able to rebuild his life and regain custody of his son. For Mr. Lora and others in the Second Circuit, bond hearings have provided a critical procedural protection to prevent harmful and needless long-term detention.

In this new video, hear from Mr. Lora himself about his life and his experience in detention, which illustrates what is at stake in Jennings:

For more information about this case and the people and communities impacted by immigration detention, see prolongeddetentionstories.org, a project of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).



Today, Gotham Gazette published an op-ed by BDS’ Community Advocacy Coordinator Nick Malinowski and Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the New York policy office of the Drug Policy Alliance, on New York’s fundamentally unfair and misguided approach to drug possession.

Moore and Malinowski write:

“At a time when public opinion nationwide favors treating drug use as a public health issue, we must stop and ask why these problematic [drug] arrests and incarcerations, which do not improve public safety, are happening in the first place. In some of these cases, people are arrested and incarcerated even when they do not actually possess illegal drugs. In cases when a person possesses drugs in an amount so small that it can’t be identified properly, should we really be sending them to Rikers Island — interrupting their life and introducing collateral consequences that can haunt them for years after?”

Read the whole op-ed here or below.




Today’s Village Voice features a cover story on “The Incredibles” –  Brooklyn police officers who judges have found to be not credible yet continue to be utilized by the District Attorney to prosecute cases. The story centers on officers whose misdeeds only came to light through investigations by BDS attorneys Deborah Silberman, Renee Seman and Scott Hechinger. You can read the entire article here or below.




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.



Brooklyn Defender Services strongly supports the City’s efforts to reduce the number of people who await trial on Rikers Island. In 2015, 67,672 people were admitted to New York City jails, with an average daily population of 10,240.[1] During this period, approximately 13,100 people arraigned in Brooklyn courts spent time on Rikers Island, 89% of who were identified as “African-American” or “Hispanic.”[2] Roughly 75 percent of people on any given day at Rikers Island are there in pretrial detention – presumed innocent under the law and ostensibly waiting for their day in court. Yet the reality is that judges and prosecutors are just waiting for them to plead guilty.




Never before in the history of our organization has police accountability been so prominently an issue of popular national importance. Just four years ago drag-net Stop & Frisk was being defended as an essential policing tactic, responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives despite research that questioned this causality and obvious constitutional concerns. While we welcome the national, progressive attention on these issues, to which our clients are often at the receiving end, we must acknowledge how we got here: long-standing police abuses coming into the light due to lawsuits, civilian documentation and protest. The deaths of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham at the hands of the New York Police Department, and the public’s perception of a lack of accountability for the officers involved, especially as compared to the extensive punishment regimes for civilians in criminal court, have driven a significant interest in this topic both locally, nationally, and even internationally.  More



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.



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.



BDS client Mr. L*, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for nearly thirty years originally from the Caribbean, will be allowed to remain in the United States with his six U.S. citizen children and extended family. The case required four years of litigation and specialized defense services from BDS’ Immigration (Padilla team), Family Defense and Criminal Defense Practice teams.

BDS first represented Mr. L in a misdemeanor criminal case in 2012. Our Padilla team worked with his criminal defense attorney to ensure a plea that would not further threaten his immigration status. Nonetheless, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Mr. L at the conclusion of his criminal case because of two twenty-year-old misdemeanor convictions that made him deportable. After negotiating with ICE attorneys, Mr. L’s BDS Padilla attorney obtained bond and he was released from detention. Yet while Mr. L was incarcerated, his children had been placed in foster care. BDS’ Family Defense Practice stepped in as assigned counsel to ensure that Mr. L could obtain visitation with his children and maintain their loving relationship.

While out on bond, Mr. L’s BDS Padilla attorney began preparing for a 212(c) waiver application (a special immigration waiver for LPRs whose prior deportable convictions are from 1997 or earlier) and impending trial before the Immigration Court. Immigration judges have discretion to issue the waiver. It is up to the person requesting relief to present sufficient positive equities to outweigh negative factors. Thanks to a social worker from BDS’s Immigration Practice, Mr. L’s case grew stronger with a report demonstrating his good character and positive relationship with his children. Fortunately for Mr. L and his family, BDS’ Padilla attorney was able to show the judge that Mr. L warranted the grant of the waiver. The judge’s approval of the 212(c) waiver allows Mr. L to remain in the U.S. with his family and maintain his status as lawful permanent resident.

Brooklyn Defender Services is uniquely poised to represent clients in complex cases involving the intersection of immigration, criminal and family law. We are so pleased that our advocacy efforts led Mr. L to be reunited with his family and no longer fear deportation from the U.S.

*Name kept confidential



The oversight board for the city’s jails is putting the de Blasio administration on notice.

In a letter issued Thursday, the Board of Correction said the city is violating its standards after Rikers Island officials failed to eliminate solitary confinement for young adults by a June 30 deadline. The delay, the letter went on, caused “serious concerns.”

It’s an unusual rebuke from an under-the-radar oversight agency. It came a week after de Blasio officials quietly asked for a six-month extension to overhaul how it was housing and handling the 18- to 21-year-old jail population.

[Watch the NY1 video segment here.]




Today, Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) joined Assembly Member Dan Quart, the Legal Aid Society and others to call for gravity knife law reform to end the criminalization of working New Yorkers for carrying tools of the job. Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf applauded Assembly Member Quart, Speaker Heastie and their Assembly colleagues for passing A9042A.

BDS believes this legislation is necessary and urgent. Thousands of our clients are arrested every year for carrying tools related to their employment, purchased at major retail stores. Many are arrested in uniform. Unfortunately, the antiquated definition of a “gravity knife” in the current law is being used to target mostly black and Latino people and solely to increase the numbers of arrests and convictions in New York City. After spending a night in a filthy holding cell and missing work to appear in court, they face the prospect of job loss, a permanent criminal record, and even deportation. We need the State Senate to pass S6483A this session to conform the law to match people’s very reasonable expectations about carrying tools.

You can watch a special NBC New York I-Team report on our collective effort here.




On June 9th, BDS’ Nyasa Hickey was on a panel with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) as part of their “Stronger Together” Know Your Rights training. As a response to recent ICE home raids that have hit Black immigrants in New York City particularly hard, BDS joined BAJI and other immigrant advocates at Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day in Brooklyn to provide information on immigrant rights and answer community member questions.



On Monday, June 6, Kathrine Russell, Team Leader of BDS’ Immigrant Youth & Communities Project, won the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s (AILA) Pro Bono Champion award at a ceremony held at New York Law School.

Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 6,500 immigrant clients. We defend detained clients facing deportation, funded by the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), clients identified through our criminal and family defense dockets, and clients referred from our community partners or who connected with us through community outreach clinics.

Since its launch in 2012, with funding support from the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development and the New York City Council, our Immigrant Youth and Communities Project has represented more than 1,000 young clients in their pursuit of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), U visas, employment authorization, and other immigration benefits or removal defense. Led by Kat since 2014, the Project takes advantage of BDS’s multidisciplinary defense services, including our Adolescent Representation Team, our civil justice project, our education advocacy team, youth social workers and youth advocates.




Brooklyn Defender Services joined tenant activists and MFY Legal Services on the steps of New York City Hall to call for the passage of a package of bills that would better regulate “three-quarter housing,” temporary housing for people dealing with mental illness or issues related to drugs. “Three-quarter houses” – named as such because they are considered something between “halfway houses” and permanent residences – have been under scrutiny recently because of revelations that they are largely unregulated, allowing landlords to take advantage of their residents putting them in cramped, rat and roach-infested apartment sometimes with several people in one room. A New York Times investigation additionally uncovered the practice of requiring tenants to attend support groups at particular substance-abuse treatment centers paid for by federal funds and for which they received kickbacks from the providers.

“This housing has really been the warehousing of people so a few landlords could rake in money,” New York City Council Member Corey Johnson said at the press conference. “The real solution is getting them into supportive transitional housing.”

The package of bills in the City Council, sponsored by Johnson, Donovan Richards Jr., Ritchie Torres, and Jumaane D. Williams, would increase transparency about the locations and standards of the housing and prohibit landlords from interfering with tenants’ medical treatment.



Join BDS and the Brownsville Community Justice Center for a community forum marking the first annual National Reentry Week. Last month, the Department of Justice declared April 24 to April 30 “National Reentry Week” to call attention to the obstacles that people leaving prison face returning to their communities. Joining the effort, BDS attorneys and staff will be leading conversations on various topics related to reentry including cleaning RAP sheets of employment-debilitating errors, obtaining certificates of relief and good conduct, finding housing, finding primary care providers, the Fair Chance Act, and the NYCHA Family Re-Entry Pilot Program. Representatives from NYCHA, Brooklyn Bail Fund, Drive Change, Housing Works, and other organizations will also be present.

Join us at 444 Thomas S. Boyland Street between 12 and 4 p.m. on April 28. There will be a free raffle and refreshments.



At a rally on Sunday, activists called on the city to establish a program that would allow riders below the federal poverty level to purchase half-fare MetroCards.

A new report from Community Service Society of New York, a research and advocacy organization, “The Transit Affordability Crisis,” found that over a quarter of low-income New Yorkers were often unable to afford the subway or bus in the past year, limiting many New Yorkers’ opportunities to get good jobs and affordable housing and, in many cases, forcing them to choose between transit and other necessities. The consequences were especially severe for low-income working age blacks and Latinos, with 31 percent of African-Americans and 43 percent of Latinos reporting that the cost of MTA fares kept them from looking for or taking a job further from the neighborhoods where they live.

BDS Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf was quoted in the Gothamist saying BDS sees thousands of clients annually who have been arrested for fare beating. “The vast majority of people arrested for this offense are Black or Latino,” she said. “Many are detained on Rikers Island at a cost of about $500 per day simply because they might not be able to afford a $2.75 subway fare.”



On Friday, March 18, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society joined the National Association of Public Defenders to help commemorate the first ever National Public Defense Day. Friday marked the 53rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright which created the national public defender system by guaranteeing quality legal representation to everyone who could not afford it.



BDS’ Debora Silberman appeared on Regional News Network’s Richard French Live to discuss the so-called Brownsville Five in a follow up to Debora’s New York Times op-ed on New York’s woefully inadequate discovery and sealing laws that result in permanent damage to the reputations of innocent people, particularly adolescents. Check out the segment below.



BDS’ Debora Silberman wrote an op-ed for The New York Times tackling how a lack of discovery and expungement laws result in permanent damage to the reputations of innocent people including adolescents.

While charges were dismissed, “the dismissal of charges does not undo the damage to the reputations of the so-called Brownsville Five, teenagers ages 14 to 18, including one who is my client. Because they were tried in adult court, their names were made public and were reported widely in the news media, smearing them for the rest of their lives.”

Debora points out that the prosecution held on to exculpatory evidence that would have cleared them in the beginning.

“In my client’s case, the district attorney’s office and other law enforcement agencies had gathered videos from the boys who were arrested and statements from the woman and her father, who was also in the park just before the incident, and witnesses in the neighborhood, all of which cast serious doubt as to the veracity of the allegations,” she writes. “But New York law does not require the prosecutor to provide any police reports or other evidence to a person who has been arrested or that person’s attorney until a trial actually starts — often a year or more after the arrest.”

Read all of Debora’s op-ed at the New York Times.



BDS Supervising Attorney Yung-Mi Lee testified before the New York City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services yesterday. In her testimony, Lee presented several recommendations along with client stories to support justice reform beneficial to both clients and the justice system generally.

Yung-Mi argued that  discovery reform is one way to cut down how long trials can take.

“In my experience, delays in turning over discovery to the defense greatly increase the length of my cases in Brooklyn,” she told the Council.

Yung-Mi also pointed out that cases are that much more difficult to investigate and argue when the defendant is incarcerated and, therefore, the Council should also look closer at bail reform.

“Oftentimes, we have not had enough time to thoroughly investigate a case or had time to obtain complete discovery,” she said. “Oftentimes, our lawyers are discouraged by our jailed clients’ unwillingness to fight the case for a longer period of time to get the right results.”

Click here to read Yung-Mi’s testimony.



BDS Reentry Specialist Wesley Caines joined a February 23 panel sponsored by Beacon Prison Action (BPA), a community organization formed in the wake of the death of Samuel Harrell who died in confines of Fishkill Correctional Facility last April. You can read about the discussion and more about conditions at Fishkill in an article posted by the local news source, Philipstown.info.

Wesley discussed his own experiences at Fishkill and what the local community can do to help ensure that incidents such as the one that resulte din Harrell’s death do not occur again in the future. He argued that the system of using force in American prisons does not encourage healthy rehabilitation of inmates and, in fact, dehumanizes people who are incarcerated increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

“We need to find out what created them,” he said. “What created that lifestyle? If you humanize them, they will humanize you, and that can only help the system.”




Reentry Specialist Wesley Caines is joining a panel discussion at SUNY Empire State College which will focus on the importance of educating individuals who are incarcerated in US prisons and the effects of education and recidivism. Topics include the school to prison pipeline, banning the box in higher education, reinstating TAP and Pell for incarcerated individual, and fighting racism in higher education.

Other panelists include Cory Greene, an organizer for H.O.L.L.A! and the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions; Kennth Innis, a counselor at Fortune Society; Edward-Yemil Rosaria, consultant at Prison Reform and Abolition; Afi Tuner, career development specialist at Strive NY; and Ato Williams, family support specialist at Fortune Society.



This workshop for teens and their families will help you navigate through New York’s legal system and the support services available for parents and caregivers of young adults with disabilities. Discussion will be presented by resented by BDS’ Brenda Zubay, Aminie Woolworth, and Keren Farkas and will end with a Q + A session with an education attorney.

Spanish interpretation provided and ASL interpretation available with advance request. For more information, please call 718-253-4948



BDS reentry specialist Wesley Caines will join a panel hosted by Beacon Prison Action Tuesday tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at 7 p.m. in Beacon. Wesley will discuss his own experiences in Fishkill Correctional Facility as well as his work at BDS which includes efforts to improve conditions at prisons around the state and help people leaving prison safely reintegrate back into population.

Beacon Prison Action is an alliance of people in the Beacon area who became concerned about the conditions at the local prison after 30-year old Sam Harrell was beaten to death by corrections officers at Fishkill. This event is organized in partnership with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which holds actions on the 23rd of every month to recognize the 23 hours each day that a person in solitary confinement is isolated.

Wesley will be joining Johnny Perez, a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness; Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York (CA) and a member of the NY Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC); and Isaac Scott, a graphic designer and fine artist who served 7 years, 8 months and 16 days of a 9-year sentence in the New York State Prison system during which he worked as an Inmate Grievance Representative (IGR) at several facilities including Fishkill Correctional.

The event will be held at Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main Street, Beacon, NY, at 7 p.m., Tuesday, February 22, 2016.



On Friday, BDS’ Jamie Burke hosted the 2016 Kings County Criminal Court’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day memorial celebration for which the Hon. Judge Betty Staton gave the keynote speech and was honored for her service. Judge Staton is currently the president of Bedfod Stuyvesant Community legal Services, Brooklyn Branch Legal Services and South Brooklyn Legal Services. In 1987, she became a founding partner in the law firm of Boyd, Staton & Cave, the first African-American female law firm in the State of new York. She also served on the New York State Family Court.

The audience was treated to the music of Schency Augustine, Chavonie cooper, Erica Gilchrist, Gregg McCann, Je-anessa Walker and the Kings County Court Choir.

Click “More” for photos.




BDS joined other public defenders questioning a new gun court part introduced by the City in an article on Politico Pro (Capital New York). The new gun part is intended to be used to expedite gun possession cases through the court system. However, public defenders foresee a number of challenges in the court including due-process questions, the quality of justice defendants will receive and whether the gun courts will actually speed up or even increase the time spent on these specific cases.

“This is transparently punitive in scope,” BDS criminal defense attorney Scott Hechinger told Politico. “None of us are for guns on the street. What we’re for are smart solutions that will ultimately reduce violence. These gun courts are not going to do that.”

Read more at Capital New York (Subscription required).

In other news, BDS’ Nyasa Hickey spoke out on raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE is raiding homes and detaining immigrants under its recently implemented Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). New York has “detainer laws” intended to limit ICE’s access to potential deportees but they appear to be getting circumvented.

As The Indypendent writes, “While the detainer laws disrupted the jail-to-detention-center pipeline, they did little to curb the data sharing and surveillance mechanisms that allow ICE to flag and find potential targets. ICE still receives fingerprint information when an arrest happens, has access to the DMV database and court hearing schedules, talks to people’s neighbors, school personnel and postal workers, and more.”

“It’s very disruptive and scary,” Nyasa, an immigration attorney, told the Indypendent. “Unfortunately stopping ICE transfers and some information sharing is just not sufficient to really protect our communities and keep the families of New York City safe.”

Read more at The Indypendent.



On Monday evening, BDS’ Amanda Jack and Wesley Caines led a primer on how to read public arrest records – RAP sheets – in the state of New York at Brooklyn Law School. More than a dozen law students attended the training where they learned to spot errors in RAP sheets that can lead to years – or even decades – of hardship for New Yorkers who don’t deserve it.

The training was part of BDS and BLS’ Criminal and Police Records Accuracy Project, led by Wesley. CP-RAP volunteers help “clean up” those errors for clients, eliminating unjust and arbitrary hurdles that stand in the way of applying for jobs and housing and which can also negatively impact future contacts with the criminal justice system.

Brooklyn Law School 2L Liana Goff  and 1L and CP-RAP volunteer Ken Zwerin organized the training to get more classmates involved.

“There are consequences for these errors when someone’s RAP sheet looks worse than it should,” Ken says. “We’re trying to ameliorate the challenges that the formerly incarcerated – or even those who are just arrested – have as they apply for jobs or face immigration issues. It’s also important to remember that future sentencing and bail decisions are based on those records.”

At the training, Ken and his classmates learned about what cases shouldn’t be included in the records – such as misdemeanors committed by underage defendants or arrests that were never prosecuted. They also learn how to get them removed and, if that’s not possible, to get courts to issue Certificates of Good Conduct which can also mitigate some of the effects of a “bad rap.”

Ken noted that the real world practice he gets through the project significantly complements his law school training.

“It really helped me apply real life experience to what we are learning in the class room,” he says. “We get to see the reality of what’s happening on the ground, how the criminal justice system actually works. But it also motivates me to go home and study the 50 or 100-year-old cases we are assigned in school because it inspires me all the more to become a practicing attorney.”

Can you help? Contact Wesley Caines at 718-254-0700 ext. 380 or wcaines@bds.org



BDS Youth Advocate Dorell Smallwood accompanied several of his BDS mentees to Assemblymember Walter Mosley’s 3rd annual job fair. There, they were able to discuss career opportunities with representatives from several organizations including the New York City Housing Authority and the US Coast Guard. They also participated in resume writing workshops, interviewing skills seminars, and financial literacy training.

“It’s a great opportunity for young people to access important information they probably wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise,” Dorell says.

Dorell adds that it makes sense for BDS to be involved as yet another way the organization is proactive in the community which is serves.

“There’s a correlation between employment and recidivism,” he explains. “If kids find jobs, they don’t find criminal mischief.”

But, Dorell also has his own personal reasons for being involved.

“It’s very satisfying for me because I get to see them get excited about being exposed to the opportunities that are out there,” he says. “We take these things for granted but, for a young person who doesn’t know that these things exist, the possibility of getting a job and being a productive member of their community is very appealing.”



A series of articles published in City Limits recently, followed up on by the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC today, offers the perfect example of the difference well-resourced attorneys can make in our justice system and how attorneys, social workers, investigators and other staff at a public defense office can positively impact the lives of those brought into the system.

In 2013, our own Talia Peleg was assigned the case of Alex Lora as part of a project spearheaded by the New York City Council to assure no immigrant is detained and deported without legal counsel. Mr. Lora spent months in immigration detention without a bond hearing because of draconian “mandatory detention” laws. BDS and the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic argued against this treatment leading to a decision by the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals which limited how long someone can be detained without a hearing. Now, as a result, no fellow New Yorker placed in mandatory detention, sometimes for arrests that were decades in the past, will be deprived of the opportunity to be heard by a judge and go home to their families.

As City Limits notes, if Lora, “had been arrested in any other city in the U.S., he would never have met a person like Peleg. He would in all likelihood have represented himself, and he would have faced a 97 percent chance of deportation.”

BDS is the first legal services provider to help immigrants in detention who cannot afford an attorney.



November 6, 2015

New York City Board of Correction

1 Centre Street

New York, NY 10007

Dear Chair Brezenoff and Members of the Board,

Brooklyn Defender Services appreciates your consideration of the comments below as part of the record related to rulemaking regarding visiting, solitary confinement, packages, and Enhanced Supervision Housing. This letter intends to respond to the prepared testimony of Commissioner Ponte dated October 16, 2015, but not made public until after the public comment period had closed.  This letter does not reflect a complete record of our concerns and should be considered supplemental to our previous testimony.

In the interest of brevity, this letter will not reiterate in detail the concerns raised by the Legal Aid Society and the Jails Action Coalition in their letters dated October 27, 2015 and November 2, 2015 respectively.  We share the serious concerns raised in those letters regarding the grave implications for civil liberties, the procedural barriers for adequate public comment, as well as the detailed concerns regarding the proposed rule changes themselves.  We would like to focus our comments on the important role of the Board of Correction in our city, and ask you to remember this role as you consider the proposed rule changes.

New York City is fortunate to have the Board of Correction to oversee its jails.  In most jurisdictions, jails and prisons operate without oversight, and people suffer.  With unfettered access to the jails and authority to establish Minimum Standards independently of the Department of Correction, the Board plays a critical role in mitigating the harm suffered by people who are incarcerated in New York City.  New Yorkers should benefit from a Board who champions its independence and prioritizes the rights of incarcerated New Yorkers and their families.  The Board was established in the shadow of Attica to help our city be more humane, more just, and more democratic – to move our jail system closer in line with the values which define our city.

For the first time in history, criminal justice, incarceration, and Rikers Island in particular, are the subject of unprecedented public scrutiny.  At this moment, your independence is crucial. Earlier this year, the Board took major steps to recognize the dignity of the people held in New York City Jails by acknowledging the harm of solitary confinement and limiting its use in our city.  We urge you to continue in the right direction, toward an approach to violence reduction which prioritizes the dignity and rights of New Yorkers as foundational.

Throughout the rulemaking process, the Department has described their view of visiting and packages in comforting terms, noting how important visits are, and how they plan to deliver essential items to people through the uniform system.  But the Department’s actions have fallen far short of their promises, to detriment of the people in their care and their families.  Our office has submitted several complaints to the Board regarding the rollout of uniforms including about clients coming to court without warm clothing, being deprived of medically-ordered shoes, being denied trial clothing, being forced to wash their clothing in sinks, and about many people returning to the community in their uniforms. Each and every time someone is deprived of such a fundamental need, their dignity is violated.

Our Jail Services Social worker is a part of the Visit Committee, and has described to you in a recent letter and prior testimony how the Department has taken no concrete action to improve visiting, or provide the Committee with data.  As a result of the lack of urgency on the part of the Department to address the horrifying conditions for visitors, families and children who visit the jails continue to be humiliated by invasive searches, intimidating dogs, rude staff, and interminable waits in order to see their loved ones.  This process is devoid of dignity for the tens of thousands of people who visit the jails each year – innocent New Yorkers just like you.

As we have stated many times, we are deeply concerned about violence in the jails, and the safety of our clients as well as correctional staff.  Conditions in city jails which are contrary to human dignity foment resentment and violence.  We believe that the solution to violence is founded on restoring respect for the human dignity of the people held in our jails and their families. The Board should invest its resources in monitoring compliance with existing minimum standards as a first step to preserve basic human dignity. We urge you to push our jails to reflect the values we share, and resist any movement in the opposite direction. Thank you for your consideration of our supplemental comments.



Riley Doyle Evans

Jail Services Coordinator

Brooklyn Defender Services



Today, the Albany Times-Union published an op-ed by Wesley Caines, BDS’ Reentry Specialist, calling for an end to the abuse and killings of prisoners in New York State. The piece is timed to coincide with a hearing held by the NYS Assembly’s Correction Committee on oversight of the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and includes specific recommendations for legislators.

In the op-ed, Mr. Caines highlights the case of Samuel Harrell, who was allegedly brutally killed by the infamous “Beat Up Squad” in Fishkill Correctional Facility for non-violent behaviors related to his mental illness. Written from personal experience with incarceration at Fishkill, the op-ed calls for strict new measures of oversight and transparency, including mandatory public reporting of uses of  force and greater facility access for the media. However, the piece also notes that the culture of Fishkill is beyond repair and calls for its closure, along with the closure of a number of other prisons rife with abuse, in the upcoming state budget.

You can find the entire op-ed below.




On November 18, 2015, lawyers, judges, court staff and social service providers convened to celebrate the opening of the Brooklyn Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court (BMVTC). The court connects veterans charged in low-level misdemeanor cases to social service providers including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A veteran’s successful completion of treatment results in non-criminal dispositions and case dismissals.

BDS Staff Attorney and Veterans Defense Coordinator Cameron Mease, who testified recently on veterans in the criminal justice system, spoke at the event:

“Veterans, while strong, can still be vulnerable and while independent, are still deserving of our support. With greater numbers of veterans being identified and given special attention by the courts, BDS is accordingly expanding in-house services. Our team of social workers, paralegals, immigration attorneys and housing and benefits attorneys will continue to learn how we can best connect our veteran clients with the services they want and deserve.”



The point of diversion is public safety. Diversion programs, or prison alternatives, have successfully lowered prison and jail populations by addressing the root causes of criminal behavior. For two decades, Brooklyn Defender Services has worked to establish and support alternative-to-incarceration options and problem-solving courts in Kings County. Brooklyn diversion programs have been an enormous success: Arrests are down and fewer people are spending unnecessary time in jail or prison.

Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf published an opinion piece in the Gotham Gazette last week outlining the important role that diversion programs play in keeping New Yorkers safe. Her article comes in the wake of government backlash against diversion programs after the tragic death of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder. As we mourn and seek answers to this tragedy, we must not repeat the mistakes of past decades and allow retributive impulses to supersede evidence-based approaches to public safety.



BDS’ New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) team and the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic won a precedential ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last week. The Second Circuit’s decision in Lora v. Shanahan now assures a bond hearing and the chance at liberty for detained immigrants in proceedings in New York if detained for more than six months. The Court ruled last week that “mandatory detention for longer than six months without a bond hearing affronts due process.”

The New York Times wrote recently of the victory, noting the importance for many New York families:

The ruling applies to immigrants convicted of certain crimes that are considered removable offenses. Previously there had been no limit on how long they could be detained while awaiting an immigration hearing. The decision could affect hundreds of immigrants in the New York City area alone.




19 OCTUBRE 2015

En la primavera del año pasado Clarence Threlkeld acudió a su segunda audiencia en la Corte Criminal de Brooklyn para resolver un caso por un delito menor y, de repente, fue arrestado por agentes del Servicio de Inmigración (ICE).

“Había ido a mi segunda cita en la corte y cuando fui a entrar escuché mi nombre, pensé que era mi abogado, el que se me había asignado. Pero eran dos hombres vestidos de civil que me informaron que había una orden de arresto de parte de Inmigración”, relató Threlkeld, quien es padre de cinco hijos.  More



On October 19, Sarah Vendzules, Supervising Attorney in BDS’ Immigration Practice, testified before a New York City Council oversight hearing on immigrants in the criminal justice system. The Council specifically asked BDS to address collateral consequences, access to justice, and services available to justice-involved immigrants and immigrants who are victims of crimes.

As Vendzules testified, “the term collateral consequences can imply subordination to criminal sentences, but in reality, ‘collateral’ consequences can be far more severe.” She highlighted a number of ways the system fails immigrant New Yorkers, and emphasized the need to end overcriminalization, as even minor offenses trigger detention and deportation. You can read her full testimony here (PDF ).

BDS client Clarence Threlkeld also testified at the hearing. BDS strongly believes that people with direct experience in the criminal justice system are best positioned to advocate for change. Threlkeld told the story of his courthouse arrest and subsequent detention by US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), despite having a non-frivolous claim to U.S. citizenship. He called on the Council to do all it can to stop courthouse arrests and make sure nobody else faces the injustice that he endured.



Three BDS NYIFUP clients won federal habeas grants in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) at the end of August before Judge George Daniels, ensuring their right to bond hearings in immigration court and vastly increasing their chances of success in their merits cases. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) incarcerated these three clients without any bail hearing for periods ranging from 10 to 17 months, asserting that it is mandated to do so by Congress (under the “mandatory detention statute”).

BDS and pro bono counsel from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP filed habeas petitions in the SDNY, seeking an order directing the immigration judges to hold prompt bond hearings in all three cases. Judge Daniels ruled that a plain reading of the “mandatory detention” statute limits its scope to those noncitizens who are transferred directly from state criminal custody to ICE. Because none of the three petitioners had been transferred directly to ICE, Judge Daniels granted the habeas petitions. The most egregious example of the three cases involved a BDS client who never spent a single day in jail following her lone conviction. ICE waited almost ten years after her conviction to lock her up in an attempt to deport her. With the help of NYIFUP, these clients can start preparing for bond hearings and will hopefully be released within the month!

These cases are three among many that BDS and pro bono counsel have been litigating, and the issues raised are currently under consideration at the Second Circuit in the lead case of Lora v. Shanahan, in which BDS co-counseled with NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. They also underscore the limits of the recent NYC laws prohibiting law enforcement officers from cooperating with ICE except in narrow circumstances. Since the detainer ordinances were enacted we have seen an increase in ICE enforcement actions in the community, and arrests (in homes and workplaces) of many immigrants who have rehabilitated and reintegrated into the community following old convictions.



In 2013 BDS Attorney Renee Seman argued a Mapp hearing on behalf of a client who was arrested for possession of a gun — a charge he vehemently denied. After hearing the Detective’s testimony on a Wednesday, Hon. Judge Guy J. Mangano criticized what was incredible testimony by the officer and stated he would be issuing his decision on suppression the following Monday. Prior to the Judge’s decision, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office came back to the client with an offer of time served; having already served a year in jail and away from his wife, the client understandably took the offer so that he could go back to the life he had before he was falsely arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

Renee was devastated about the guilty plea, believing firmly that her client was innocent and the case continued to haunt her. Believing in her client- Renee continued to advocate on his behalf and after much effort and as a result of her phenomenal advocacy, today June 26, 2015, in front of Judge Mangano, the DA’s office vacated the plea and dismissed the indictment.

Since his release, our client has gotten his life back, working hard at a great job and is back with his wife. After his plea was vacated, he left the courtroom, turned to Renee and said “you always had my back.”



Ronald Schneider, BDS Social Work Team Leader for the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team, was honored on June 10, 2015 for his dedication and commitment to exalt and his unwavering dedication to youth.

exalt is a Brooklyn-based alternative to incarceration program that serves youth at all junctures along the spectrum of criminal justice involvement. The program aims to re-engage young people in their love for learning and, in helping them understand the urgency of taking action, to reverse their journey along the school-to-prison pipeline.

exalt Intern Liaison Kevin Williams, a former client of Ron’s, presented Ron with the award. Ron is a long-time supporter of exalt and the empowering programs that they provide for BDS’s clients.

Upon accepting his award, Ron spoke to the importance of the exalt program: “No child should be defined by the mistakes they are bound to make, but they should be nurtured and glorified for the unlimited potential for success that they all have.”



On June 10th, Brooklyn Defender Services’ Immigration Director Marianne Yang received the New York City Bar Association‘s Legal Services Award, established to recognize the efforts of lawyers and non-lawyers who have directly provided free legal services to indigent clients on a full-time basis for an extended period of time.

Other 2015 Legal Services Award recipients include: Toby Golick, Cardozo Law School; Jim Provost, Manhattan Legal Services; Kim Susser, NYLAG; & Mohammed Sheriff, Bronx Defenders. Presenting the awards, on behalf of the NYC Bar Association, was the Honorable Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.



We support the efforts of the Council to improve transparency in our city jails through Legislation requiring reporting by the Departments of Correction and Health and Mental Hygiene. Transparency is an important step toward addressing the decades of neglect in our city’s jails, which we hope will be followed by the more important step of accountability and enforcement of the law. I would like to take this opportunity to raise an urgent issue which is not addressed in the proposed bills, but which demands our attention.

People with Developmental Disabilities and Intellectual Disabilities are one of the most vulnerable populations in jail and prison settings. They are frequently the targets of violence, sexual violence, extortion, and abuse from staff and other incarcerated people. However, in New York City, when these individuals enter the criminal justice system there is no meaningful mechanism to keep them safe, provide accommodations, or direct them to necessary services.

Neither the Department of Correction, nor the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene includes the identification of Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities as part of their intake screening process. Very often individuals with such needs have masked their disabilities during the course of their lives and may not feel safe or able to affirmatively offer up information about their needs. Even worse, they may have an impairment that has not been identified in the community, but which nonetheless necessitates accommodation and services.

Because there is no meaningful screening process, it is typically up to our office to identify for the Departments our clients who need accommodations for their cognitive deficits. Of course, lawyers are not often clinically trained to identify such conditions, and an arraignment interview is not the proper setting to do so. Therefore, we can only assume many of our clients with developmental disabilities pass through the system and are victimized not only by other individuals but by the system at large.

Currently people with developmental and intellectual impairments are placed in General Population housing units or in Mental Observation housing units with people who do not have the same needs. Almost without exception our clients with developmental and intellectual impairments are victimized while in these settings. Additionally, because certain disabilities make it difficult to follow instructions or obey jail rules, people with developmental and intellectual disabilities may be more likely to have altercations with staff and suffer placement in solitary confinement.

While we emphasize that the vast majority of people held in city jails are there unnecessarily – people with severe developmental and intellectual disabilities are a particularly egregious case. Once incarcerated, the lethargy of institutions charged with placing individuals into services in the community or to restore them to competence can leave people incarcerated for weeks and months for no good reason.

We would like to share the experiences of our clients which illustrate an all-too-common set of outcomes for individuals with cognitive impairments in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Spaulding suffers from moderate to severe mental retardation as well as mental illness. Despite multiple requests to the Department of Correction for Protective Custody, Mr. Spaulding bounced between several mental observation and general population settings. He was the victim of several beatings including a slashing attack to his stomach. Our office continued to request safe housing for Mr. Spaulding, but he continued to be victimized – he was again severely beaten, this time necessitating surgery to his face, and leaving his arm in a sling for several months. When Mr. Spaulding returned to population after hospitalization, his disability caused him to have trouble with jail rules – he did not understand why he was required to be strip searched and refused the traumatizing practice. In response, he was placed in solitary confinement in a contraband watch cell where he remained for several days, and where he was denied a counsel visit. In order to have him removed from these harmful conditions, our office provided DOHMH records regarding his intellectual disability. A five minute conversation with Mr. Spaulding is enough to raise serious red flags about his cognitive abilities. A meaningful intake screening process could have prevented repeated brutalization, months of pain in the hospital, and the suffering he endured in solitary confinement.

Mr. Williams suffers from a severe intellectual impairment and was charged with a misdemeanor. Mr. Williams was initially released on bail. However, when he was found to be too intellectually disabled to participate in his own defense, the judge, over vociferous objections, remanded him to city jail pending placement with the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). It took OPWDD approximately two months to have Mr. Williams released from jail, only to refer him for outpatient services at the very same facility at which he had received services in the past. Because his charge was a misdemeanor, it was dismissed upon his placement in OPWDD. Effectively, Mr. Williams was incarcerated for two months on no charges, during which time he was assaulted in his housing unit, suffering blows to his head and eye. Mr. Williams was determined to be safe to live in the community by OPWDD, yet our criminal justice system found him so dangerous he was forced to live in a jail that could not keep him safe.

The City has a responsibility to people like those I’ve just described. We have a responsibility to ensure that our police officers are trained to engage these individuals safely and with care; that there are facilities in the community to address their needs before during and after police contact; that our judges release these individuals to services rather than incarcerate them from a position of misguided fear and misunderstanding; that our jails provide targeted services, meaningful safety and programming should they be held despite interventions along the way. BDS is eager to work with the council and city and state agencies toward a caring and just approach to serve our most vulnerable neighbors.



My name is Kimberly Nasatir and I am a licensed master social worker at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). At BDS we represent over 45,000 justice-involved individuals each year, and of those individuals, about 6,000 are incarcerated in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC) during the pendency of their cases.

One of our BDS clients, now an advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals as a result of her own experience at Rikers Island, brought to our attention a re-entry book called Connections: A guide for formerly incarcerated people in New York City published by the New York Public Library. We also learned, through a survey conducted throughout our office that less than 1% of our staff had ever heard of Connections or seen our detained clients in possession of this book. Few clients knew of it. This year marks 20th anniversary of the book’s publication.

BDS feels that a guide specifically targeted for individuals returning to their community, including basic steps to re-entry among additional resources in each of the five boroughs, should be in every individual’s hand during their time in custody. The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC), apparently agrees, listing in the “Inmate Handbook” that every person “should have been given [Connections] upon admission.” Yet, clients are processed through intake, and almost no one receives the book. We have also come to know that some of our clients do not receive their “Inmate Handbook,” the list of rules and regulations that someone who is detained must rely on to know their rights and obligations. Further, detained individuals are required, during intake, to sign for both books, even though they do not receive them. Everyone should be given both books without exception.

This issue is twofold: we know that when a client has some control of her future, with a resource re-entry guide that can either equip her to take steps immediately upon release towards self-help and self-promotion, she will be less likely to be re-arrested. We believe that NYPL has created a resource that speaks to prevention of recidivism that should not be ignored.

The second part of this issue is that the Inmate Handbook must be provided at intake as a protective mechanism. Often, we know that issues arise between DOC officers and detained individuals, and we believe that if both parties have a guide to be clear about rules and rights, this is one step closer to eliminating misunderstandings on the part of our clients and on the part of the DOC officers. We have heard stories that rules “have changed without notification” and this book offers detained clients and DOC a consistent set of guidelines that cannot be contested.

We believe these two books go hand in hand, and we ask that legislation be put into action that requires the DOC to fulfill their obligation during intake to provide the NYPL Connections re-entry guide and the “Inmate Handbook.” We further request a tracking mechanism to ensure these items are actually distributed.

City Council is considering new legislation today, a Bill of Rights to be read out loud and provided in writing to every individual during intake. This very important time for an individual in the process of being incarcerated can be more comprehensive and impactful if both Connections and the “Inmate Handbook” are part of this bill.

New York City has endless resources, many funded by the City, that go untapped and underutilized. Connections can be a linkage to strengthen individual ties to community resources that already exist, which we believe will ultimately result in reducing the number of people incarcerated in City jails.

I thank the New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, and particularly Chair Elizabeth Crowley and Councilmember Daniel Dromm for this opportunity to testify before you today.



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.

Read More



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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On February 23, Sergio Jimenez, the Housing Unit Director at Brooklyn Defender Services, participated in a press conference held by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to highlight widespread language barriers for non-English speakers in Housing Courts. Comptroller Stringer, along with legal service providers and tenant advocates, called for a comprehensive review of language access in the courts to ensure that appropriate signage and interpretation services are available to those who need them. It is unacceptable that the court system has failed to provide of these basic accommodations in our wonderfully diverse city, and BDS thanks Comptroller Stringer for his leadership in shining a spotlight on this critical oversight.

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On February 10, BDS staff delivered comments at a New York City Board of Correction meeting regarding implementation of the new rules on solitary confinement. The rules stipulate that nobody may be kept in the box for more than 30 days consecutively, or for more than 60 days in any six month period, unless removing them would “endanger inmates or staff.” They also reduce the maximum sentence per infraction from 90 days to 30 days. However, it is unclear whether the New York City Department of Correction intends to apply these rules in full to those who have pre-existing long sentences for solitary confinement. As our comments note, the new rules represent only a small step in the right direction toward ending the shameful use of extreme isolation in our City jails, but nonetheless, in the interest of fairness and common sense, this progress should be felt by all.

Read more…



From the New York City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services:

Courts & Legal Services Committee Tackles City’s Examination of Indigent Criminal Defense

Council Member Lancman held a joint hearing with Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Chair of the Committee on Public Safety, to examine how the City assesses the quality of indigent criminal defense. Representatives from the New York State Office of Court Administration, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and legal services providers all testified.
As indigent criminal legal services expand to include not only attorneys but investigators, social workers and experts in every area of law, the City’s examination of its effectiveness must encompass the various additional services provided. The hearing explored what services are available and what best practices should be put in place to ensure their quality not only for defendants but for the City as a whole.

The Courts & Legal Services Committee was able to shed light on this evolving brand of indigent defense and how we evaluate it in New York City. “As the mechanics of providing indigent defense have evolved, so have our expectations of the indigent defense system, especially as we advocate for more ‘wraparound services’ that give individuals representation on a wider range of legal issues, not just the accused crimes,” Rory said.



From the New York Law Journal:

Lisa Schreibersdorf, the founder of Brooklyn Defender Services and its current executive director, said standards in indigent defense were used “as a sword and a shield.”

For her colleagues outside the city handling indigent defense with limited funding, Schreibersdorf said the standards were used to say the organizations were falling short.

But she said that in the city, there are caseload caps and an administration and city council “that really cares about us.”
“If we have standards, we can use them affirmatively to show what we want to do, or what we should be doing … so I welcome them, only because it’s New York City,” she said.

Read more:




WABC-TV says prosecutors are investigating a Brooklyn man’s allegation that police officers planted a gun on him.
“It’s been a terrible nightmare for Mr. Herring, an innocent man who every night had to go to bed with these charges these false charges hanging over his head every single night,” said his attorney, Debbie Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Service.

See More



An edited version of the following letter was published in the Daily News on January 15.

Dear Editor:

On January 9th, the Daily News published an article about the shooting death of my client, Jaquay Bennett, who was 19 years old at the time.  After providing the details of his brutal shooting, the article reported that he “had several prior arrests.”  These are among the last words that will ever be written about Jaquay, a teenager, who died tragically.

As widely reported, a vastly disproportionate number of people of color are arrested in New York City every year.  In Jaquay’s case, as in that of many others, he had yet to have been convicted of any crime.  Jaquay’s arrests do not justify his murder nor do they make it any less horrible.  Further, given the disproportionate arrests of people of color, his arrests do not give any insight into his character.

Your blog contained no mention of the fact that he had been attending a program at Medgar Evers College, that he was dedicated to his family – including five siblings, his parents, and a one-year-old son, or that he had spent time working with Crown Heights Mediation Center.  Jaquay will be missed and had an impact on the world beyond the fact that he had been arrested.


Amy Albert
Brooklyn Defender Services





A Brooklyn man who claimed that gun-possession charges against him were manufactured by the police had his case dismissed on Thursday, amid two investigations into the practices of a group of police officers in the 67th Precinct in East Flatbush.

The man, Jeffrey Herring, had maintained his innocence ever since his arrest on June 4, 2013, asserting that officers had planted the gun on him and fabricated the circumstances of his arrest.

The officers claimed that they had received a tip from a confidential informer that Mr. Herring had a gun. Prosecutors had been instructed to bring the informer to court on Thursday; the defense had challenged whether that informer even existed.

Read more:





Director of BDS’ Family Defense Practice Lauren Shapiro speaks on the importance of good child welfare policy.

“It is unfortunate that the new administration started with so many media stories about child deaths, but we don’t believe that child welfare policy should be developed in response to media stories,” says Lauren Shapiro, director of the family defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services.

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On Thursday, November 20, Akai Gurley, 28 years old and a former client of ours at Brooklyn Defender Services, was shot and killed by probationary Police Officer Peter Liang. Liang was patrolling an apartment complex in East New York — gun in hand. The NYPD has preliminarily described the shooting as “accidental,” and referred to Mr. Gurley as a “total innocent.”

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Dear Letters to the Editor:

After an NYPD officer shot and killed unarmed Akai Gurley, many newspapers, including the Daily News, felt the need to inform readers that Mr. Gurley had “roughly two dozen prior arrests.” And for readers, the first photograph they saw of Mr. Gurley was the mugshot many of those newspapers chose to run.

As an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, I had the privilege of representing Mr. Gurley on one of those “two dozen” cases. The charge was Resisting Arrest; the NYPD claimed that Mr. Gurley had refused to be handcuffed after officers stopped him for supposedly riding a bike on the sidewalk. Mr. Gurley had photographs showing that the officers had brutally beaten him. I spent five months convincing the District Attorney’s office to investigate the charges, and when they did, they agreed to dismiss the case.

I got to know Mr. Gurley very well over those months. He was a passionate man, who spoke often of the love he had for his family and his aspirations for the future. He had an intense devotion to justice and fairness. He was a complete and caring human being, a father, a partner, a son. Above all, Mr. Gurley cared about having the chance to have his story heard.

It’s a story about how broken the NYPD’s Broken Windows policy is. It’s a story about what it means to be a young person of color in Brooklyn, where the hallways and staircases of your home are patrolled like a prison, where a police officer can fire a bullet into your gut and then call the incident an “unfortunate accident;” where the death of a promising and talented young man can be turned into a conversation about lighting conditions in the projects.  It’s a story that has come to a tragic conclusion.

-Michael Arthus, Staff Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services

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Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation to sharply limit the city’s cooperation with detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and to boot that federal agency from Rikers Island.

“What these bills do is they protect the rights of undocumented immigrants, of visa holders, and legal permanent residents alike, all of whom have suffered under the previous approach, and ultimately prevent families from being torn apart,” Mr. de Blasio said at a Queens press conference.

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Mayor de Blasio announced on Monday that the NYPD will no longer arrest people caught with small amounts of marijuana, issuing summonses instead. Advocates expressed cautious support.

NEW YORK CITY — The New York Police Department will no longer arrest people for low-level marijuana possession, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced in a press conference on Monday.

The NYPD will issue violation summonses to people caught with small amounts marijuana, instead of putting them in handcuffs and taking them to a precinct. The summonses will require people to appear in court at a later date and pay a fine.

The policy, which will go into effect on Nov. 19, will not protect people who are found with more than 25 grams of marijuana, those who are smoking in public, or those caught with the drug near schools or playgrounds, the officials said. People who have open warrants, are subject to an active investigation, or do do not have proper identification could also be arrested.

Speaking at the press conference, Mayor de Blasio said that the new policy is intended to refocus the attention of police officers away from petty offenses and toward more serious crimes.

“When an individual gets arrested for even the smallest quantity of marijuana it hurts their chances to get a good job, to get housing, to qualify for a student loan,” de Blasio said. “This policy will allow officers to continue on with their work and to put more time and energy into fighting more serious crime rather than get bogged down with an unproductive arrest.”

The new policy could bring about a sea change in the way the city is policed. Misdemeanor-level marijuana possession accounts for a large percentage of the city’s arrests, a vast majority of which happen to young black or Latino men living in poor neighborhoods.

“This is a huge improvement,” Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, told BuzzFeed News. “Summonses don’t get you fingerprinted. This will be better for people who are vulnerable to collateral consequences, like immigrants.”

Still, Schreibersdorf cautioned that the policy will not fulfill its goal unless the NYPD relaxes its identification requirements for summonses. Immigrants and teenagers often do not carry valid identification, she said, which often means that they cannot be processed for a summons. She added that the policy change does not address what she called the root cause of the problem — police officers in New York routinely stopping people without probable cause.

“Having summonses is an improvement for people who are already being stopped, but that doesn’t mean they should be stopped in the first place,” she said. “The problem, from my perspective, is that stopping people without cause is unconstitutional.”

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solitary posts

BDS has launched a postcard campaign, through which we intend to send messages from thousands of New Yorkers directly to Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, calling for the end to solitary confinement, which has been described by a wide-range of observers as torture. BDS staff recently visited the underbellies of the City Jails at Rikers Island and were able to confirm first hand the inhumanity of the conditions there, specifically in the Solitary Confinement and Restricted Housing Unit sections. If you would like to send a postcard, please contact us at 718-254-0700 x269. Or write the commissioner directly yourself.

Joseph Ponte
New York City Department of Corrections
75-20 Astoria Blvd.
East Elmhurst, NY 11370




We are encouraged that the New York City Council is discussing issues of brutality and neglect on Rikers Island and is seeking to hold accountable the public and private officials tasked with managing these facilities. It seems there is widespread agreement that the status quo in City jails is untenable. However, we are concerned efforts for reform will fall short if City Government continues to avoid addressing the primary driver of many of these problems – too many admissions to jails in the first place.

Read more on our Huffington Post Blog



On Tuesday BDS, along with advocates from across the state, including recently exonerated individuals and their family members, spoke out about the need for reforms to discovery laws that prevent individuals accused of crimes and their attorneys from seeing the evidence the state is using against them.

“It’s trial by ambush,” said New York State Assemblymember Joe Lentol.

At a press conference at City Hall, Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf  joined Lentol, New York State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, City Council Members Andy King, Laurie Cumbo, Fernando Cabrera, Brad Lander, Vanessa Gibson and Antonio Reynoso, Public Advocate Letitia James and groups including Discovery for Justice, It Could Happen to You, New York State Chaplin Taskforce, Committees for Change, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Iron Workers Union, DC 37, 1199 SEIU, Local 100 and the Teamsters to advocate for the repeal of CPL 240 and the enactment of CPL 245, which would secure open, early and automatic discovery for the people of New York.



On Sunday, October 5th Brooklyn Defender Services participated in the 2014 Liz Padilla Memorial Run.

Elizabeth Kasulis Padilla, a graduate of Cornell Law School, joined the Volunteer Lawyers Project as a Pro Bono Coordinator/Staff Attorney in December 2004 with the goal of helping those less fortunate than herself. Liz approached each day with excitement, eagerly seeking opportunities to give back to her community, especially to those most in need of a helping hand.

In the early summer of 2005 Liz, a competitive runner, was planning a 5k Race to benefit the VLP as a unique way of joining two of her favorite activities. On Thursday, June 9th, 2005, Liz was tragically killed in a road accident when she was biking to work.

Her absence continues to weigh heavily on those who knew and loved her, yet she continues to inspire us. This race is dedicated to honoring her legacy of kindness and generosity.  BDS is proud to be an annual supporter and participant.

lizabeth Kasulis Padilla, a graduate of Cornell Law School, joined the Volunteer Lawyers Project as a Pro Bono Coordinator/Staff Attorney in December 2004 with the goal of helping those less fortunate than herself. Liz approached each day with excitement, eagerly seeking opportunities to give back to her community, especially to those most in need of a helping hand.

In the early summer of 2005 Liz, a competitive runner, was planning a 5k Race to benefit the VLP as a unique way of joining two of her favorite activities. On Thursday, June 9th, 2005, Liz was tragically killed in a road accident when she was biking to work.

Her absence continues to weigh heavily on those who knew and loved her, yet she continues to inspire us. This race is dedicated to honoring her legacy of kindness and generosity.

– See more at: http://lp5k.com/#sthash.875id0XG.dpuf



What if Michael Brown’s story had ended differently?

A teenager. A misdemeanor. A cop. But then, instead of bullets, what if Mr. Brown had received a granola bar, a “safe space” to discuss concepts like choice, and an invitation to make a collage as part of a deal to erase the arrest from his record?

In Mr. Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Mo., and beyond, American teenagers who are born poor and dark are routinely arrested for things that others get away with. Sometimes, guns fire and lives disappear. More often, the encounter can risk destroying a life more slowly. But in Brooklyn — which was infamous for crime before becoming known for artisanal whiskey — an experiment is testing whether these early police encounters can be reinvented as an opportunity: to reach out to troubled youth, get them help and bend their perception of the law.

Terrell, 17, was an apt candidate for bending. A high school graduate bound for community college, he had already endured two rounds of “stop-and-frisk,” a pre-emptive police tactic that a judge eventually found unconstitutional. Then this summer he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

When he arrived for his court date, his public defender informed him of a new program for 16- and 17-year-old defendants: Instead of pleading guilty, performing community service, having a criminal record and being supervised for up to a year by probation officers, he could participate in something called Young New Yorkers that afternoon. If he did, his case would be dismissed and sealed — erased from public records. (The Times agreed not to publish his last name and details of his arrest in exchange for his cooperation.)

Surprised, Terrell took the deal.

The United States, which accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, is in the midst of a great rethinking of its criminal justice system, including changes in sentencing laws, more lenient marijuana policies and so-called restorative justice efforts.

The Brooklyn program is part of these changes. It is rooted in the belief that the criminal justice system often takes decent but mildly troubled young people and, instead of reforming them, turns an ephemeral circumstance — a crime — into an enduring identity: criminal.

“Theoretically, it’s supposed to be correctional,” said Judge George A. Grasso, who supervises the Brooklyn program. “But most people going through, it’s not correcting.”

Judge Grasso calls the program “collaborative justice.” Various parties — the judge, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, even the city’s Department of Education — work together to decide which program each defendant should enter (Young New Yorkers is one of a handful).  Read More



Imagine you were charged with a crime. You would search for the best attorney you could afford, for you would know that your future depended upon being represented by zealous counsel who had sufficient time and resources to provide you with excellent representation. You will need a dedicated, well-resourced attorney as you are facing a prosecutor supported by the almost unlimited resources of the state.

This basic truth about our criminal justice system – that it works only when both the prosecutors and defense counsel are zealous, competent attorneys who have sufficient resources to represent their clients – is why the U.S. Supreme Court held 50 years ago that the Constitution guarantees the right to a state-provided attorney for all criminal defendants who cannot afford counsel.

Sadly, tens of thousands of New Yorkers face prosecution each year and are represented by attorneys who do not have those resources. New York public defenders are zealous, caring and dedicated attorneys who are often unable to provide the best representation to clients because they lack access to expert witnesses and investigators, support staff or sometimes even office supplies or a computer. Furthermore, insufficient state support for our important function results in understaffed offices where attorneys handle caseloads significantly higher than is recommended by various bar associations.

The state provides abundant resources to prosecutors and police agencies, while simultaneously ignoring its constitutional responsibility to provide adequate resources to public defense attorneys. As but one of many examples, according to a recent finding by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the state provided dedicated public defenders in Onondaga County only $28,161 for investigators in 2011, while funding the prosecutors with 35 times as much. This significant disparity of resources has led to an unbalanced and broken criminal justice system for us all.

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 BDS Family Defense Practice’s 3rd Annual Taste of Brooklyn fundraiser will be held November 6th at City Bakery (3 West 18th Street).  The City Bakery has been a fixture in Union Square since 1990 and will be a magnificent space to celebrate our seven years of keeping Brooklyn families together. City Bakery’s owner Maury Rubin is a huge champion of our work, and we hope you will join him by sponsoring the event this year.  The event will be an evening full of good food, drink, music and great company.



“Six months detention without an opportunity to be heard raises serious constitutional questions,” Judge Hellerstein wrote. “Araujo-Cortes’ continuing detention has become unreasonable.”

The judge gave authorities one week to provide Araujo-Cortes with a bond hearing, where it will need to show that he is either a risk of flight or dangerous in order to continue the detention.

Bridget Phillips Kessler, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services who represented Araujo-Cortes on the habeas petition, said it is far more difficult for an individual to prepare his or her case when incarcerated.

“It’s a wonderful decision for our client, and we are glad he will have an opportunity to have a judge determine his risk of flight and dangerousness so he can hopefully obtain a reasonable bond and rejoin his family while he fights his immigration case,” Kessler said.


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Sixteen-year-old inmate Trevor Mobley was waiting in line for food on Rikers Island when a Correction officer ordered him to back up.

“I told him, ‘I’m next to get food,'” Mobley recalled. But the officer continued to demand that he move, eventually writing Mobley a rule violation for disobeying a direct order and verbal abuse. Mobley, who was awaiting trial for drug possession, was sentenced to 60 days in solitary confinement. It was his first month at Rikers Island.

In solitary (known as “the bing” on Rikers), people spend 23 to 24 hours a day inside a small cell with only a mattress and a toilet-sink combination. They are allowed one hour of recreation outside the cell in a small cage. Recreation is offered at 4 a.m., and to take advantage of it the person must be awake and standing by their cell door. Mobley never bothered.

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On Friday, Staten Island resident Eric Garner’s death was officially ruled a homicide. For the last two weeks, New York City has been roiled by video of him gasping his last words—“I can’t breathe!”—after an NYPD officer put him in a choke-hold while arresting him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. At Garner’s funeral on July 23 at Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, reporters and news crews swarmed the block, interviewing relatives, high-profile guests like the Reverend Al Sharpton, and other attendees.

What the local press didn’t see that evening, and what has gone unreported until now, is that police officers chose the funeral of a man whose death in police custody has put the NYPD on the defensive to make another, very public arrest of a guy who wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time.

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The New York City Council is investigating mental health services and violence on Rikers Island and in other city jails as recent media reports have renewed the public’s interest on this topic. At a recent oversight hearing conducted by the council, mayoral officials, union leaders, corrections officers, civilians working in city jails and other advocates testified to their experiences. Notably absent from the discussion were people with personal experience inside the cell blocks; with 120,000 people each year churning through city jails — over 1 million over the past ten years — it seemed incongruous that the Criminal Justice and Mental Health Committees of the City Council had not included these voices. The City Council legal department has declined to provide us with the list of official invitees to the hearing.

More than 75 percent of the people on Rikers Island and in other city jails are not in custody due to a conviction. They are in jail on bail, sometimes as low as $250, because they cannot afford to meet this cash obligation. According to the Criminal Justice Agency, just 12 percent of people accused of misdemeanors are able to post bail at arraignments. Prosecutorial requests for bail and the choice to insist on cash bail when other options are legally viable, is a matter of public policy. And so we have decided to place people accused of the most minor of crimes in jail solely because they have been locked out of the social and economic resources and opportunities that would otherwise enable them to post a couple of hundred dollars as collateral. A recent Vera Institute report on the Manhattan District Attorney’s office found that race plays a significant factor in making bail determinations.

A homeless man arrested for trespassing, like Jerome Murdough who unable to pay $2500 bail subsequently died in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell, is more likely to be held in city jails than a Bernie Madoff, a Richard Haste, a John Gotti. And it is these indigent people who are subjected to solitary confinement and other abuses in city jails.

The following narratives have been collected by Brooklyn Defender Services‘ Jail Services. Our hope is that their voices will be included as the City moves toward policy changes that will most directly impact those people in our city who are accused of committing specific categories of crimes and unable to afford bail. In addition to these three stories, there are literally thousands of others, which thus far have gone unheard to most of the public. Names, dates and identifying information have been necessarily changed to prevent retaliation against those clients who may remain in City custody.

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Nella was struggling with an issue with her landlord, but had no idea how to go about handling it. Having moved not long ago from Houston, Texas, she doesn’t have a large network of people to call upon for help and her job at a non-profit doesn’t exactly pay her enough to hire a high-powered attorney. She didn’t know what to do.

Then, as she was walking down Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, she was handed a flyer from somebody at the Brooklyn Defender Services.

“The timing really couldn’t have been better because I was going through this issue with my landlord and I didn’t know how I was going to handle it,” said Nella, who wanted her last name withheld due to said legal issues. “Coming here really helped because I got to speak with someone that understands what I’m going through and knows exactly what my rights are. I’m definitely feeling a lot better about my situation.”

The Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that helps to provide criminal, family and immigration legal defense to over 40,000 people annually, hosted a Community Law Program Initiative at the Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Saturday

The event featured 15 different groups that provided everything from legal advice, to job training, to assistance finding a home, assistance for the drug addicted, domestic violence support and a lot more.

“Brooklyn Defender Services is a criminal defense organization, but often we deal with clients that are in need of other services as well,” said Jamie Burke, a Domestic Violence Case Supervisor at BDS who organized the event. “We might help someone facing criminal charges, but also needs drug treatment, a domestic violence shelter or even a parenting skills class and we constantly have to refer out for that.

“We thought that we could help a lot of people get the services that we need by inviting all of these organizations to come to this event so we had everything under one roof,” Burke said. More



“In recent years, more immigrants have found themselves in court as the U.S. government has deported and detained nearly 400,000 each year. Though not all people facing deportation are detained, those who get locked up, either because they were previously charged with a crime or entered the country without papers, are less likely to have an attorney to represent them and more likely to be deported. The two biggest factors in successfully resolving a case are having a lawyer and being free during the trial, according to a report by Katzmann’s group…” More




Please welcome out 2014 Summer Interns! We are fully staffed for the summer. Law students interested in positions next summer, please see below:

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.

BDS has summer internship programs where law students work on criminal, family or immigration cases. If you are interested in a criminal or immigration internship contact Jillian Modzeleski jmodzeleski@bds.org. If you are interested in a family internship contact Megan Brown at msbrown@bfdp.bds.org. If you are interested in an immigration internship contact Marie Mark at mmark@bds.org.



Brooklyn Defender Services sent six of its investigators to the annual National Defender Investigation Association conference, held in New Orleans from April 23 to 25. At the conference, the investigators attended trainings on interviewing juveniles, staying safe in the field, interpreting police reports and confessions, the relationship between mental illness and substance abuse, building relationships with witnesses, and investigating child molestation cases.

The conference also included several keynote speeches. Anne-Marie Moyes, now a public defender in Nashville, discussed the years-long investigation she conducted before she became an attorney, which led to the reversal of a murder conviction for the man who later became her husband. Tom Ullmann and Matt Whalen, respectively a public defender and a public defense investigator in Connecticut, discussed their work representing a high-profile murder suspect who attracted hostile national media attention. And Jarrett Adams, the recipient of the NDIA’s Investigator of the Year award, spoke of his life, in which, after spending nearly a decade incarcerated on a wrongful conviction, he has become an investigator for the Federal Defenders in Chicago and is on his way to a law degree and a future as a public defender.

The BDS investigators also got the chance to meet many of the over 300 conference attendees, the vast majority of whom were also public defense investigators from around the country, and to attend a fundraiser dinner for the launch of the Ben Sullivan Investigator Fellowship, which will sponsor a new investigator position at Orleans Public Defenders in memory of Ben Sullivan, a former investigator in that office. With the BDS investigators newly enrolled as NDIA members, they look forward to building relationships with the organization and its members in the future, and to attending the NDIA next annual conference, sadly a full year away.



On May 8th, more than 300 guests celebrated the work and history of Brooklyn Defender Services at the organization’s first annual benefit at One Hanson Place –inside the historic Williamsburg Savings Bank building in Brooklyn. Martin Edelman, Esq. was honored with the 2014 Achievements in Justice Award for his work as Chairman of the Kings County Judicial Screening Committee of the Democratic Party; Marianne C. Yang, Esq. was honored with the 2014 Harvey Mandelcorn Award as the Director of the Immigration Unit at Brooklyn Defender Services, where she created BDS’s program to provide public defense representation for immigrants in deportation proceedings – the first program of its kind in the nation. Brooklyn Defender Services Founder and Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf MC-ed the evening, which also included brief remarks from new Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson. Spoken word poetry about stop and frisk by Mahogany Brown & Co., and a performance piece about solitary confinement by Rachel Barnard and Joseph Williams punctuated the evening. In the event space were art installations by Brooklyn artists, including Lunar New Year.

Click here to view photos of the 2014 BDS Gala



Please join us on May 8th, 2014 for BDS’s inaugural event at the historic One Hanson Place in Brooklyn. Enjoy an evening of Brooklyn culture and entertainment and show your support of BDS’ commitment to providing exceptional legal services to the residents of Brooklyn.