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




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



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.”



Andrea Nieves – Attorney


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues


Introductions 1122-2016, 1123-2016, 1128-2016 and

Resolution 1012-2016

Related to access to feminine hygiene products 

June 2, 2016

My name is Andrea Nieves. I am an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the City Council Committee on Women’s Issues and, in particular, Chair Laurie Cumbo and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for the opportunity to testify today about the dire need for the City to provide quality feminine hygiene products to women in City jails.

Over the past 20 years, BDS has represented thousands of women detained on Rikers Island. Our female clients spend their time at Rikers at the Rose M. Singer Center, often referred to as “Rosie’s.” When compared to their male counterparts, our incarcerated female clients are:

  • Much more likely to have histories of trauma and to be survivors of sexual and physical abuse;
  • More likely to suffer from a mental illness (recently more than 70%) and chronic medical conditions;
  • More likely to be unemployed or underemployed;
  • Often the primary caretakers of children while in the community; and
  • More likely to experience sexual abuse and trauma while incarcerated.

The vast majority of the women at Rosie’s should not be in jail; they are there simply because they are too poor to pay bail.

Notably, the bulk of the top charges that bring women into contact with the criminal justice system are related to histories of drug and alcohol addiction – a clear indication that the War on Drugs continues to wreak havoc in the lives of the clients, families, and communities we serve. In choosing to detain these women, the City is assuming responsibility for providing continuous quality care, including hygiene products and health care.

BDS strongly supports the three bills and one resolution before the Committee today. Access to feminine hygiene products is critical for women’s health. Doctors recommend changing pads or tampons every three to four hours to prevent bacterial and fungal infections that may lead to serious health problems. We believe that all women and girls should have access to feminine hygiene products and are grateful to the City Council for proposing legislation to ensure that schools, shelters and jails across the City provide these items to women in need. These bills are critical to demonstrating a public consensus about the importance of access to feminine hygiene products and in bringing about a cultural shift in how we talk about and address women’s issues.

While many prisons and jails across the country do not provide any free hygiene products to detained people, including feminine hygiene products, DOC does provide free sanitary napkins to women. However, women are only provided a small number of the free napkins, a supply frequently insufficient for women with heavier flows. According to a recent survey by the Correctional Association, 54 percent of respondents in New York prisons said they did not get enough sanitary napkins each month. This is consistent with the experience of our attorneys and social workers supporting our clients detained at Rikers. Our clients tell us that they are generally given only 12 sanitary napkins at a time. Women without a sufficient supply must then request additional napkins from guards, who often use the request as a way to control women and assert their authority over her. Our clients tell us that they have to beg officers for more free pads only to be treated with disrespect that make them feel ashamed. Furthermore, the free napkins are of very poor quality and most of our clients will go to great lengths to purchase name brand napkins from the Commissary. Our clients report that the free napkins are not properly absorbent and thus easily lead to staining of their uniforms.

Ms. R’s story is a perfect example of how Rikers current policy on feminine hygiene products affects poor New Yorkers.

Ms. R, a 24-year-old BDS client, spent nine months detained on Rikers.

She asked her BDS social worker not to visit her while she was menstruating because she was worried about leaking through her uniform and having to walk the halls of the jail with a bloodstain. Ms. R had to choose between the shame of leaking blood while menstruating and meeting with her legal team. Ms. R. comes from a low-income family and worked overtime in the jail to pay for her basic needs including deodorant, soap and sanitary napkins. She shared that she did not have enough sanitary napkins and she would try to wear the same napkin for as long as possible to ration the supply she was able to purchase from the Commissary because the free pads were of such low quality.

The current policy of providing women with unusable hygiene products in insufficient quantities after repeated requests does not meet the spirit of the bill as proposed. No woman should be denied her dignity or humanity because of her menstrual cycle, including when she is in school, living in a shelter or incarcerated. Today’s hearing, along with the passage of Int. 1122-2016, are important first steps in codifying a right for women incarcerated in City jails to access feminine hygiene products.

We are very grateful for Council’s important work on this matter. However, legislation alone will not be enough. We plan to continue direct advocacy with DOC to ensure that all women receive as many sanitary napkins as they need, when they need them, without harassment and abuse from correctional officers. We hope that the City Council and our community partners here today will work together to ensure that DOC provides functional sanitary napkins, as the current offerings are of such poor quality that our clients report they are often unusable, except as shower slippers or as adhesives to hang photos of their children on the wall. In the future, we would like to see DOC provide female inmates with tampons as well as sanitary napkins, which allow greater freedom of movement and comfort.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. We are grateful to the Council for bringing to light the issues that low-income women face in obtaining feminine hygiene products in the City’s schools, shelters and jails. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 387) or anieves@bds.org.




Andrea Sáenz – Supervising Attorney, Immigration Practice

Presented before
The New York City Council
Executive Budget Hearing
May 25, 2017

I. Introduction

My name is Andrea Sáenz. I am the supervising attorney of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family and immigration defense, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 7,500 immigrant clients. In 2016 alone, we handled more than 1500 immigration matters across a full spectrum of services. I thank the City Council for this opportunity to submit testimony about the Mayor’s Office’s proposed changes to the NYIFUP program.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) is New York City’s groundbreaking, first-in-the nation program providing quality counsel to immigrant New Yorkers who are detained and facing deportation and separation from their families and communities. NYIFUP’s mandate of universal representation is the model upon which all other detained deportation representation programs in the nation are based. I strongly urge the Council and the Mayor’s Office to maintain the current parameters of the program and increase funding so that we can continue to provide universal representation to the rising numbers of immigrants who are being arrested and detained as a result of President Trump’s enforcement priorities. NYIFUP is a profound example of this City’s commitment to immigrant New Yorkers. Any changes to the existing model will be a dramatic step back from the values of due process for all that , by virtue of creating an infrastructure of accountability for prosecutors and judges, have powerfully exposed the injustice of immigration detention and rapid deportation.

II. Background on NYIFUP

   a. The impetus for the creation of NYIFUP

Despite facing the significant possibility of permanent exile from the United States, immigrants in deportation proceedings are not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer if they are unable to afford one. As a result, most immigrants across the country facing deportation are unrepresented. This leads to people being deported who have a right to remain in the country.

Prior to the creation of NYIFUP, only 33% of detained immigrants in New York City had counsel at the time their cases were completed. In contrast, nearly 80% of non-detained immigrants had representation. A 2011 study found that of New York City immigrants who were unrepresented and detained, only 3% obtained successful outcomes, as compared to the majority of respondents who were represented and non-detained who received successful outcomes in 74% of cases.
New York City recognized the injustice of the lack of counsel for detained immigrants and took the historic step of funding free lawyers for poor detained immigrants in removal proceedings. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project was never simply about the people detained, but was created to strengthen families and communities, as the program’s name suggests. As the Vera Institute of Justice notes, between 2005 and 2010, more than 7,000 U.S.-citizen children in New York City lost a parent to deportation. In addition to the financial hardship caused by the loss of a primary breadwinner, these children have been shown to suffer significant emotional and psychological effects. The legal representation provided by NYIFUP supports New York’s vibrant immigrant community by reducing unnecessary detention and unjust deportation of individuals who have strong ties to their communities.

   b. How NYIFUP works today and the program’s successes

BDS is proud to be a NYIFUP provider, along with The Bronx Defenders (BXD) and The Legal Aid Society (LAS). Since the project’s inception three years ago, BDS NYIFUP attorneys have defended more than 700 people in deportation proceedings. The improved outcomes for detained people represented by NYIFUP attorneys have far exceeded initial expectations: as of December 2015, 52% of pilot clients have been reunited with their families. During the pilot assessment period, NYIFUP attorneys won 71 percent of their trials. NYIFUP is projected to increase the percentage of immigrants who will win the right to remain in the United States by 1,000 percent, compared with prior success rates for detained, unrepresented immigrants.

NYIFUP providers staff intake days at the Varick Street Immigration Court (New York City’s detained docket) 2-3 times per week, seeing all individuals who are appearing for the first time before the court. The providers do a one-page income assessment to determine whether a person qualifies for NYIFUP representation. People who can afford their own attorneys or who already have an attorney are not provided a NYIFUP attorney. The vast majority of detained people who appear at intake qualify for a NYIFUP attorney based on their indigency.

NYIFUP currently represents any detained immigrant who appears at the Varick Street courthouse and meets the income requirements. Judges led the way in calling for the creation of NYIFUP, both to limit injustice and ensure that people with lawful claims to remain in this country were able to do so, and also to increase court efficiency. The goal of the program was never to exclude people from representation, but rather to recognize that if everyone is represented, the system functions more efficiently and justly.

Some of the people that NYIFUP represents resided in Long Island or Westchester County prior to their arrest by ICE, but they are not excluded from representation under the NYIFUP model because the goal was always to promote universal representation for all individuals detained and facing deportation in New York City. Governor Cuomo decided to replicate the NYIFUP model when he set aside $4 million in the FY2018 state budget to ensure that detained New Yorkers in all upstate immigration courts will be eligible to receive legal counsel during deportation proceedings. The state model is also based on venue, rather than client residence, and will cover all individuals detained and facing deportation in four upstate immigration courts. By ensuring that people are not excluded from NYIFUP because of geographic considerations, with the addition of the FY18 funding from the state legislature, New York will be the first state in the nation to ensure that all people who are detained and facing deportation in any immigration court in New York State have a lawyer to help them assert and defend their rights. Brooklyn Defender Services calls upon the Council to maintain the current parameters of the program to ensure that all people whose cases are heard in New York City receive due process.

   c. NYIFUP currently does not discriminate against people if they have a criminal record

People are not excluded from NYIFUP representation because of a criminal record. Indeed, from the outset, NYIFUP contracts were given to immigration attorneys within public defender offices because the function is similar and because NYIFUP providers’ expertise in criminal law improves the quality of representation in cases where crim-immigration issues are central. City Council recognized that people with criminal records were the most likely to be detained; the most likely to be deported without legal representation; and the least likely to obtain representation from organizations that pick and choose clients, in part because people with criminal records often have complex defenses in a deportation case. The City recognized that public defenders are best situated to assess the veracity and significance of a charge and to challenge or appeal the charge or conviction if they find it was unlawful or improper.
The whole point of a universal representation system is to ensure that anyone who may have the chance to stay with their family is given the full chance to litigate that right. It also reflects the very American value that even if a person does not have a defense, they deserve someone in their corner to advise them and give them a voice in the proceedings.

NYIFUP has found great success in representing New Yorkers, no matter a person’s criminal record. Over the past three and a half years, we have helped multiple U.S. citizens avoid wrongful deportation, prevented torture victims from being returned to their home countries where they would face certain death, and prevented deportations based on crimes that never actually happened. Some examples of clients who may have been denied representation based on a criminal history carve-out, but who had extremely compelling cases, are here:

Christopher A U.S. Citizen Released After Months of Zealous Representation.
Christopher left his home country as a young boy because he was afraid for his life and came to the US to find his father, a U.S. citizen who worked on military ships. Christopher struggled with homelessness and spent time in jail. In 2016, he was detained by ICE, devastating his U.S. citizen wife who depended on him financially and emotionally. His NYIFUP attorney realized that under the complex case law on citizenship, Christopher had derived citizenship when his father became a U.S. citizen. After months of factual development, his attorney won a contested evidentiary hearing about key facts in his childhood which allowed her to then file a complete motion to terminate his case on account of his U.S. citizenship. Days after this filing, ICE released Christopher from detention, allowing him to finish his case while working and supporting his family. He would never have known the law he needed to fight his case without an attorney by his side.

Karam Safe from Torture and Restarting His Life.
Karam is an older man who has lived in the United States as a green card holder since he was five years old. He grew up in a deeply homophobic neighborhood and culture, ashamed of his identity as a closeted gay man. Between this challenge, his learning disabilities, his depression, and his father’s abandonment, Karam developed a substance abuse problem and picked up several felony convictions. After being released from prison, he was arrested by ICE. In NYIFUP intake, Karam told the attorney meekly, “It’s OK, I know you’re not going to take my case.” NYIFUP counsel told him we would take his case, and after hard work building a strong record, Karam won Convention Against Torture protection based on the torture or death he would face as a gay man with his specific limitations if deported to his home country. He is now a full-time caretaker for his elderly mother who is fighting cancer, and has a positive outlook on himself that he never had before.

Marco A Young New Yorker Nearly Deported for a Turnstile Jump That Didn’t Happen.
Marco is a permanent resident with cognitive limitations. He had early struggles as a teenager that led to him being convicted of felony offenses, although he received youthful offender status on those. ICE placed him in deportation proceedings. Since the law does not allow ICE to deport Marco based on youthful offender cases, they charged him as subject to deportation for a single turnstile jumping conviction from when he was 16. While he was unrepresented, Marco was actually ordered deported on this charge. His case was later re-opened, and subsequently, Marco’s lawyer realized that Marco’s criminal records were wrong, and that this case was a mere disorderly conduct violation, not a turnstile jumping. ICE counsel refused to correct their mistake, and Marco’s attorney obtained new certified dispositions and filed a written motion to terminate his case. The immigration judge agreed and terminated the case, and Marco no longer faces deportation as a result of simple errors in his records.

As these examples show, a person’s criminal record, even if they have been convicted of serious felonies, does not preclude someone from relief from deportation under our immigration laws. Yet none of our clients would have been able to make these complex legal claims on their own without the assistance of an experienced deportation defense attorney. By not limiting who has a right to counsel, NYIFUP currently ensures that people are entitled to stay in the U.S. with their families may do so. Those who do not have a legal path to remain here are assured that they had qualified counsel review their case and provide them and their families with information about their legal options as they navigate one of the most difficult decisions of their life, to accept an order of deportation.

III. Increasing Immigration Enforcement

The NYIFUP Coalition jointly requests $12,000,000 to fully fund the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project in FY2018 to ensure that every detained New Yorker has legal representation when facing deportation.

a. Rising caseloads

Immigration arrests are up 40% nationwide, as ICE ramps up enforcement efforts since President Trump took office. This figure is consistent with what we have been seeing on the ground at intake. Not only have caseloads been particularly heavy this fiscal year, but the Varick Street Court began running initial appearance dockets three times a week instead of two times a week in May, which will cause an increase in intake of up to 50% over previous intake levels. Indeed, we have had to make the difficult decision to stop picking up cases at intake in the month of June because we have already exceeded out caseloads targets as determined by the City for FY17. This means that when detained people appear in immigration court for the first time after May 25th, we will be unable to take their cases because we are over the contractual maximum. During this hiatus from intake, NYIFUP attorneys will continue to go to Varick to do Know Your Rights presentation, provide individual advisals, and request adjournments, but will not pick up new cases. Unless the City provides more money for FY18 to meet the increased need, we will not be able to tell these people that we will be able to take their cases at a later date. The need for City support of NYIFUP has never been more acute.

To make matters worse, not only are we seeing more cases, but we see that ICE has changed their policies in the courtroom, making it more difficult for us to obtain the kinds of favorable outcomes that we received last year.

   b. Asylum seekers no longer being released on bond

For existing cases, we are seeing decreases in the use of prosecutorial discretion and discretionary release. From February to mid-March, we did not have an asylum seeker released from ICE custody for a period of nearly seven weeks. It appears that the White House’s January 25 executive order on border enforcement had the effect of ICE refusing to release detained asylum seekers even where they had passed an initial screening interview and had a sponsor or family member with lawful status ready to house and support them. Other immigration legal service providers across the country also report that ICE has virtually stopped granting detained immigrants bond or parole, keeping them incarcerated throughout their cases unless they successfully appeal to an immigration judge. Since March, we have had a few releases since starting to file federal habeas corpus litigation against this practice, but remain concerned that going forward ICE’s default will be to detain everyone, including asylum seekers, parents, and victims of violence and trauma, and to fight release however we seek it.

   c. ICE targeting people who won relief but have not yet received their visas or green cards

We are also seeing that NYIFUP clients who have been granted relief but have not yet received their green cards are being sought out by ICE and re-arrested. For example, we represent a 16-year-old client from Central America who has an approved Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) application who was arrested by the ICE gang unit and is now is a secure juvenile detention facility. While his SIJS application was approved, he has not yet received his visa number from USCIS. It is unclear to us why he was taking into detention by ICE, as he was not arrested by the NYPD or did not try to re-enter the U.S., two reasons that people are sometimes re-detained after release.

   d. Arrests in the courthouses

Our immigration clients, like our criminal defense clients, are scared to go to immigration court. ICE agents now roam the hallways at 26 Federal Plaza and we have observed ICE agents arresting people in the courts. This was uncommon in recent years. For example, BDS represents a client who was re-detained by ICE when he appeared for an immigration court date last year. How can we adequately counsel our clients about the importance of attending their immigration court appearances to fight against deportation when they face the threat of coercive immigration detention every time they enter the courthouse doors? Once detained, people depend on NYIFUP to represent them to help them challenge their detention.

   e. ICE OSUP check-ins

In some cases, ICE may decide not to execute a final removal order and might instead issue an “Order of Supervision,” or OSUP. A “post-order-of-removal” Order of Supervision may be issued under limited circumstances, such as when ICE determines the individual cannot be removed due to his or her country’s refusal to accept them, or when it is otherwise impracticable or contrary to the public interest to remove the individual. An Order of Supervision is considered to be a “humanitarian act” on the part of ICE, and may be available if the non-citizen is the primary care giver to a child with a medical condition, or if they themselves are receiving medical treatment for a serious condition, etc. The Order of Supervision will direct the non-citizen to appear at regular ICE check-ins, usually every few months and at least once a year.

Our clients who have been attending regular OSUP check-ins for years are now terrified to appear before ICE. One of our NYIFUP clients who was released from detention because he had a heart attack while in custody was recently hospitalized because of the stress and fear of deportation. Clients who previously checked in once or twice a year are now being asked to return in a couple of weeks or a month with their passports, ostensibly to facilitate deportation.

Our attorneys and office staff who are already overworked are doing their best to accompany our clients to OSUP check-ins, but we simply do not have the capacity to meet the need and quell the well-founded fears of our clients and threats of detention and deportation.

   f. In the Community

i. Clamoring for Know Your Rights

Since the presidential election last fall, our office has received increasing requests from the community to present Know Your Rights trainings to the community. Since the first immigration Executive Order was announced we are now receiving near daily requests for assistance from elected officials, community-based organizations, city agencies, religious institutions and the press.

ii. Daily Calls from Current and Former Clients

All of our attorneys and paralegals have seen a huge increase of panicked calls from our clients, current and former, about what to do if ICE is at their door, whether or not they can travel, what they should be doing with their U.S. citizen children, whether they should appear in court, requesting immigration legal services for their loved ones, and more.

In short, our communities are crisis and need the support of legal service providers more than ever. We want to continue to support all of our former and current clients, as well as serve more people, but our capacity is limited by the resources currently available to us.

IV. The Mayor’s Office’s Proposed Changes to NYIFUP

At the Executive Budget Hearing on May 11, 2017, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs testified that the Mayor intends to allocate $16 million to immigration legal services, with an as yet undetermined amount to be earmarked for deportation defense. They also indicated that the Mayor’s plan would exclude people who have any of the 170 criminal convictions listed in the City detainer law from representation under any baselined city funding, and potentially exclude people who are not New York City residents.

We are deeply concerned about the Mayor’s proposal to limit NYIFUP’s universal representation model and deny certain categories of people the right to an attorney. It is morally wrong to allow any person who is detained in New York City immigration courts to be excluded from representation. Once we start picking and choosing who will get an attorney, we have unequivocally altered the fundamental purpose of NYIFUP, which is to provide everyone with a chance to make their case to the court that is deciding their fate.

   a. The types of convictions the Mayor has used to exclude our fellow residents from representation are not necessarily serious or recent

The list of 170 excludable offenses is a very broad list and it includes many cases that are not serious. Some examples from Brooklyn Defender Services’ own experience are as follows:
Assault in the 2nd degree:
o An immigrant mother used corporal punishment, but did not injure her child, not knowing that the laws and cultural norms in the U.S. are different from her country of origin.
o A client got frightened when a plainclothes police officer approached to arrest him. When the client ran, the officer fell and skinned his knee; the client was charged with assault 2nd because there was injury to an officer.
o A client had a verbal argument with a 66-year-old man who didn’t like that the client was smoking a cigarette. During the argument, the client pushed the man away, and the man fell to the floor. When the man told police his leg hurt, client was charged with assault 2nd because the complainant was 65 or older.
Criminal possession of a weapon 3rd:
o A gun was found in the closet in one room of an apartment. Every resident of the home, including the tenant’s mother and grandmother, was arrested and charged with possession of the gun.
Burglary in the 2nd:
o A homeless client went into the lobby of a building and took a trash bag. Because a lobby is considered a “dwelling,” the client was charged with felony burglary of a dwelling.
Robbery in the 2nd:
o An after-school fight turned into a “robbery” when one of the participants in the melee dropped his phone and another person picked it up.
Robbery in the 3rd:
o A homeless man pursued a couple for two blocks after asking them for spare change. No weapon or actual threat is required for this crime, so police often charge a person with felony robbery for “aggressive begging.”

   b. There is no time limit on the Mayor’s stated policy, punishing even people with very old convictions, who may have a chance to fight deportation but would not be able to mount a defense.

For example, a father who was brought to the U.S. as a child, got into trouble as a teenager, and is now in his 40s with a job and children of his own, would be unable to make his case that he should be allowed to stay in the country under discretionary relief. Currently, a qualified NYIFUP attorney would ensure that every legal and factual issue is investigated and that all the relevant information is before the court.

By foreclosing legal representation in the first instance, anyone with a compelling story will be summarily deported without having a chance to explain their circumstances. Prior to NYIFUP, claims of this type simply did not succeed when people were unrepresented. In the example of the father above, he was never incarcerated, successfully completed probation, and attended college. He now works, pays taxes, and attends church. Without an attorney, this man would be summarily deported, at great loss to his family and community. Many of the most compelling cases fall within the technical definition presented by the Mayor and may not qualify for NYIFUP if his policy is enacted as stated.

   c. The proposed residency requirement would mean that many people who are intimately connected to the fabric of New York City would be excluded from representation simply because they cannot afford City rents

New York City is the life center for all of the surrounding areas. Our city benefits significantly from the labor and investment of the millions of people who come to our City every day to work. Manhattan alone sees its population double during the day, from 1.6 million to 3.1 million, because of the influx of commuters from the other boroughs and outside the City. As rents rise, more and more vulnerable groups are being forced out of their communities, out into Westchester or Long Island so that they can afford to put a roof over their families head, even if it means hours-long commute every day to the City to work. The vast majority of our clients are housing insecure, and many are homeless, or spend time at the homes of friends, because they cannot afford city rents. Many of our NYIFUP clients have children and family members who live in New York City, even if they themselves did not reside within the five boroughs when they were arrested by ICE.

The purpose of NYIFUP has always been to promote the safety and well-being of New York’s immigrant communities, including U.S.-citizen children of immigrants, with the recognition that helping adults who have the right to stay in this country and provide for their families helps the community as a whole. By limiting the program to people whose last address was located in the City, we damage the universal representation mandate that is premised on the recognition of the broader benefit that NYIFUP services provide to our immigrant communities.

V. The Critical Importance of NYIFUP’s Universal Representation Mandate

Universal representation protects the most vulnerable New Yorkers, helps to combat racial disparities, and sends a strong message to our immigrant communities that the City will support and protect them against federal policies that are explicitly and intentionally promulgated to exclude and deport immigrants of color from our country.

   a. The most vulnerable New Yorkers will pay the highest price without counsel

People who are the youngest, the oldest, the mentally ill, the sick and disabled are at the most risk if they do not have an advocate to look at their case and determine if they can avoid deportation, usually to a country that does not have medical care to meet their needs. If any bar to representation is created, then those who need an advocate the most will not even get an attorney to look into their situation. Currently, NYIFUP attorneys make sure that people who may not be fully competent due to their age, health or other circumstances are protected in the legal proceedings and in the community.

Even if a vulnerable person ends up being deported, NYIFUP staff are able to expedite the deportation, reducing an unnecessarily jail stay, and can also coordinate with the client’s family to make any arrangements possible, deliver identity documents or belongings, and notify relatives in the home country.
b. Due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the people most likely to be arrested, overcharged, placed in jail on bail and forced to accept a plea that would not minimize collateral consequences are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

It is important to view this policy in the context of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A black or Latinx person is more likely to be arrested for something that a white person would not be arrested for. In the examples of 170 crimes that would be excluded under the Mayor’s proposal, it is unlikely that a white mother who used corporal punishment would be arrested. It is also unlikely that a group of kids fighting after school would result in arrests in a white community. Certain groups of people are more likely to be saddled with one of the convictions in the detainer list because of their ethnicity. This is compounded by the fact that the person is likely to be in jail solely because they cannot afford bail. If any resolution of the case becomes available that would allow the person to go home, he or she is likely to accept it even if there is a chance of an immigration consequence.

Under the Mayor’s proposal, attorneys who are ready, willing and able to make sure that after all that has already happened to the person, they are not unfairly deported, would decline to even interview the person to see if they have any remedy before the Immigration Judge. This compounds the dramatic racial disparities that exist right now rather than starting to even the playing field for people of color.

   c. New York City’s clear message to all New Yorkers that if their loved one is locked up and facing deportation, they will not be alone fighting their case is eviscerated by anything less than universal representation

Over the past four years, the NYIFUP providers have shown the immigrant community that NYC stands by them and will ensure that they and their loved ones are treated fairly and with dignity. Even in cases when we cannot avoid deportation for a client, the fact that the information is clearly explained, family members are apprised about what is happening, and community organizations are clear who to call for help sends a powerful message to the community about what New York City stands for.

With families, individuals and community-based organizations unable to assess eligibility, the work done to support the immigrant community will be lost. The uncertainly and anxiety of the immigrant community will result in unscrupulous people taking advantage of people, many of whom would have been eligible for NYIFUP.

VI. Conclusion

NYIFUP has never been more important. We are a human shield for our clients, doing everything in our power to show them compassion in a system that increasingly views our clients as deportable others – “criminals” or “aliens” with rights that can and are regularly trampled on. Even when we lose our client’s case, we provide them with the opportunity to share their story with the prosecutor and judge and make the case why they deserve to remain in this city with their family and community.

We ask that the City Council reject the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate NYIFUP’s mandate of universal representation and instead, continue the program’s eligibility requirements as they currently exist while increasing funding to meet the increased need of immigrant New Yorkers in detained deportation proceedings.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 718-254-0700 ext. 434 or asaenz@bds.org. Thank you.



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.

Read More



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

Read More



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.




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.




Hon. Michael Gerstein, Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf, Honoree Michael Baum, Esq., Hon. Andrew Borrok

On May 21st, BDS hosted its 2015 Benefit Gala, honoring Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries, non-profit 826NYC, and Michael Baum, Esq.




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.



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.



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.



BDS Staff Attorney Jillian Modzeleski Testifies at City Council

On September 18, Brooklyn Defender Services was invited to testify at two New York City Council hearings – one examining the efficacy of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), and another considering legislation to create a task force to study veterans in the criminal justice system.

Jillian Modzeleski (pictured), who has served as BDS’ assigned attorney to Brooklyn’s HTIC since its inception, testified that “HTICs can be a critical tool to protect trafficking victims from many of the devastating consequences of involvement with New York’s criminal justice system, but only when District Attorneys and Judges use them for that purpose. In BDS’ experience, HTICs predominately function as prostitution courts with connections to overstretched service providers.” She further argued that treating victims of sex trafficking as criminal defendants is fundamentally inappropriate and that prosecutors’ use of the specter of punishment to persuade them to inform on their traffickers is ineffective and wrong. You can read the full testimony, which includes concrete recommendations to make HTICs more fair and effective, here.

Later that same day, Cameron Mease, BDS’ expert on Veterans Treatment Courts, told Council Members: “While veterans’ service, trauma and acute health needs might be unique, the facets of the criminal justice system that oppress them are not.” He explained that veterans—who face higher rates of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, mental illness and arrests—generally suffer the compounding trauma of contact with the criminal justice system without special consideration for their service or conditions, except for the minority who are granted access to Veterans Treatment Courts. He highlighted the case of Jerome Murdough, a homeless former Marine, who baked to death in a 101-degree cell on Rikers Island after being arrested for sleeping in a public housing stairwell on a cold night. Citing this and other cases, Mease argued for expanding the use of Veterans Courts and, more generally, ending the over-criminalization and mass incarceration that has torn apart vulnerable New Yorkers, including veterans, and underserved communities in our City for far too long. You can read his full testimony here.



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.


May 30, 2017

Hon. Corey Johnson

New York City Councilmember

224 West 30th Street, #1206

New York, NY 10001


Dear Council Member Johnson:

I write regarding recent news that the largest share of City funding for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new initiative to combat the opioid epidemic, HealingNYC, is slated to be allocated to the New York Police Department (NYPD).[1] I respectfully request that the New York City Council Committee on Health hold a public hearing on this funding allocation as well as the City’s attempt to pair a public health approach to problematic drug use with increasingly aggressive law enforcement tactics.

As Chair of the Committee on Health, you have been a leader in the fight to protect the health and wellbeing of New York City’s most vulnerable residents, most notably those in our jails on Rikers Island. You have also taken this city forward with funding for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to study safe injection facilities for intravenous drug users.

The opioid epidemic is among the most deadly forces in our city today, warranting a strong response from policymakers. I 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, I am 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, earlier this week, Crain’s reported that “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 will reportedly be used to investigate overdoses with the goal of bringing criminal charges against people alleged to have supplied the drugs.[2]

There is a growing recognition among policymakers of all parties, many of whom may struggle with addiction themselves or have friends or family members who struggle with addiction, that criminalization is an ineffective and, in fact, often very dangerous approach to drugs. These dangers are only heightened as police and prosecutors here and across the country pursue homicide-like charges or other very serious charges against alleged suppliers when overdoses do occur. 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.

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 HealingNYC or rather be diverted from other NYPD functions. For example, the most common drug arrest charge in 2016 was low-level marijuana possession, with 18,136 arrests. The disproportionate impact of these arrests aggravates racial and economic inequality in our society, undermines trust in our criminal legal system, and contravenes the beliefs of the majority of Americans (60 percent), who support full legalization of marijuana.[3] Moreover, 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.[4] (HealingNYC seeks to reduce opioid deaths by 35 percent over the next 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.

At the Committee on Public Safety’s Executive Budget hearing on Monday, 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. After low-level marijuana possession, 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.

We believe a public hearing on this critical subject would help to evaluate the efficacy of the different components of HealingNYC and facilitate greater transparency and accountability in our City’s overall approach to drug use.

Because City administration and agency officials generally are permitted to testify first at Council hearings, I ask in advance that the Council request testimony from NYPD with research to support the use of scarce public funds to disrupt the supply chain of heroin, fentanyl or other drugs.

Thank you for your consideration of my request.


Lisa Schreibersdorf

Executive Director

Brooklyn Defender Services


[1] Caroline Lewis & Rosa Goldensohn. Will stepping up drug-dealer arrests help alleviate the opioid crisis? Crain’s New York 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).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Art Swift. Support for Legal Marijuana Use Up to 60% in U.S. (2016), http://www.gallup.com/poll/196550/support-legal-marijuana.aspx (last visited May 30, 2017).

[4] National Institute on Drug Abuse, Study Links Medical Marijuana Dispensaries to Reduced Mortality From Opioid Overdose NIDA (2016), https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2016/05/study-links-medical-marijuana-dispensaries-to-reduced-mortality-opioid-overdose (last visited May 30, 2017).



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.



Bill Bryan – Supervising Attorney, Civil Justice Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Public Safety

Hearing on the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act

November 2, 2016

My name is Bill Bryan and I am a Supervising Attorney in the Civil Justice Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Thank you for this opportunity to address the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety.  BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, to tens of thousands of clients in Brooklyn every year. We thank the New York City Council for moving to protect New Yorkers from the harms of so-called nuisance abatement and padlock laws. We believe the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act includes many critical improvements to the City’s Nuisance Abatement Law.

Public Nuisance Abatement, a little-known provision of the NYC Administrative Code, was ostensibly created to assist in the shuttering of illegal gambling and sex industry in Times Square. However, it has since evolved into a law enforcement tool to circumvent the due process protections of New York’s Landlord-Tenant Laws and deprive citizens of access to their homes. The ProPublica/Daily News report published in February 2016 shed light on what attorneys in BDS’ civil justice practice have seen for years: that these laws disenfranchise mostly low-income New Yorkers of color, break up families, and punish entire households for allegations that are often unsubstantiated or wholly dismissed by our criminal and civil courts. ProPublica found that 98% of the nuisance abatement actions that occurred over 18 months targeted people of color. While the NYPD is ultimately responsible for affirmatively enforcing these laws in such a flagrantly racially disparate manner, it is New York City’s nuisance abatement laws, as currently written, that have allowed for years of unchecked abuse and unmitigated harm to some of New York’s most vulnerable communities.

Nuisance abatement actions are not being filed in emergency situations where the city is without another remedy to halt alleged conduct. Indeed, we routinely see these cases filed where a client’s tenancy, and possibly their guilt or innocence, has withstood two other proceedings on the same set of facts–for example, first a criminal proceeding and then a NYCHA termination proceeding. These actions, based upon the same circumstances as an arrest, are often filed long after a criminal case has finished, leaving tenants without legal representation or even advice about their rights or options. In our experience, these cases seem intentionally geared to taking advantage of pro se litigants.  One way of assessing this phenomenon would be to analyze how many of the filed cases have not settled with an attorney on both sides.  This doubling (and in some case tripling up) of cases on the same facts and circumstances is not a good use of resources on the side of the court, the NYPD or the tenants, who disproportionately suffer from this expenditure of resources by missing work and/or medical appointments.

Ultimately, BDS believes that the NYPD should not be in the business of evicting people from their homes. We also believe that the criminalization of drug use, which underlies many nuisance abatement actions, is the cause of much of the associated social problems, not the solution. Making people homeless and breaking up families, as an auxiliary of criminalization, is at best a horribly destructive crime reduction strategy, and at worst, a counterproductive, criminogenic attack on low-income communities of color. The term “nuisance abatement” is misleading; the NYPD’s mandatory exclusions of loved ones and evictions simply relocate any nuisances that may be present. The sex industry that once was centered in Times Square has not abated; it has simply migrated into other communities and online.

More concerning, these cases are filed seemingly with the sole purpose of fishing for default judgments. In every case where an attorney from our office has answered a public nuisance complaint, the NYPD has backpedaled and been willing to settle the matter with a simple “do not engage in criminal activity” stipulation. While this practice is arguably functional for those who are represented by an attorney, the vast majority of tenants facing these types of procedurally complicated, high-stakes proceedings are unrepresented. The immediate disposal of the cases we fight calls into question the good faith in which they are brought. Yet when a tenant fails to answer, the NYPD invariably moves forward with a lockout.

These NYPD-initiated proceedings are another burden on tenants’ time, limited resources, and shelter, without a clear benefit to The City. They are being utilized in a way that conflicts with the stated purpose of the law. For a program that claims to exist to help stabilize neighborhoods, these tools serve only to further alienate vulnerable citizens and erode public trust in law enforcement in communities of color.

These cases should not be used as fishing expeditions to try to get enhanced discovery or hold tenants (who may or may not be guilty) to perpetually binding probationary-style stipulations.

BDS is grateful to the City Council for bringing these laws to light and introducing a variety of changes that we hope will require the NYPD to dramatically reduce their use of nuisance abatements.  There are a few provisions that would benefit from small but important adjustments. We list below our assessment of each bill, with specific comments or suggestions for each.


Responses to Proposed Legislation
(1) No. 1308 (The Speaker, Council Member Johnson, and the Public Advocate) — A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to repealing sections of the nuisance abatement law permitting certain forms of injunctive relief

We strongly support this legislation, which would eliminate temporary closing orders, or ex parte orders through which the NYPD evicts New Yorkers without giving them any chance to defend themselves.

These closing orders are the most egregious practice in the nuisance abatement law as currently written, especially when applied to residential closings. Every client we have seen who has suffered an unexpected and unannounced closing is left reeling, homeless, and desperate, and is often willing to do anything, or sign anything, to get back into their home as quickly as possible. The coercive nature of settlements offered in order to resolve a temporary closing order cannot be overstated. If nothing else passes, this change is imperative because it means the person stays in their home, due process is maintained, and they can be removed from their home only after the NYPD meets their burden and the tenant(s) are given a meaningful opportunity to be heard. When a tenant, and their family, are still in their home, they are less likely to agree to exclude a loved one as a condition of reentry.  This provision alone may help to keep vulnerable families together.

(2) No. 1315 (Council Member Garodnick and The Speaker) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to resolving conflicts between the nuisance abatement law and related proceedings
This is a useful provision limiting the amount of cases filed.  It must be noted that the city also files these cases based on allegations in NYCHA apartments. Thus, it may be necessary, to meet the goals of this amendment, to require corporation counsel to inquire whether NYCHA is already seeking termination of tenancy or permanent exclusion based upon the same conduct.

The term “similar legal proceedings” is vague and confusing. In almost every residential action, we see criminal charges filed based upon the same conduct that forms the basis of the nuisance abatement action. Does the Council intend for this amendment to completely foreclose the possibility of these actions in such cases? If so, we applaud this measure. If “similar” is going to be more narrowly defined to mean that a nuisance abatement alleging repeated drug sales can go forward if the criminal case didn’t seek closure of the apartment, then it is unnecessary, as this will never be an issue in a criminal proceeding.

(3) No. 1317 (Council Member Gibson and The Speaker) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to excluding possession of a controlled substance or marihuana from the nuisance abatement law and increasing the number of sales of controlled substances sufficient to create a nuisance
We strongly support this legislation, which would end the use of nuisance abatements against New Yorkers accused of low-level drug offenses. As stated above, such behaviors do not belong in the criminal justice system, and they certainly do not warrant evictions or exclusions by the NYPD. Among the communities where these offenses are most commonly enforced, stable housing is a critical resource. The New York State Office Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services has found that “safe, affordable housing and stable living-wage employment are fundamental to successful long-term recovery.” Household-wide evictions and exclusions of loved ones are fundamentally inappropriate responses to suspected drug use.

(4) No. 1318 (Council Member Grodenchick, Johnson, and The Speaker)A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring verification of a nuisance prior to enforcing injunctive relief pursuant to the nuisance abatement law
We appreciate the Council’s focus on the question of whether the alleged conduct precipitating a nuisance abatement is ongoing. As was reported by ProPublica, often, it is not. With this change, even the granting of a closing order is not a guarantee that it can be enforced. By requiring the NYPD to independently verify the situation hasn’t changed before they enforce the court’s order, it allows an individual locked out of their home to challenge not only the underlying lockout but also the NYPD’s decision to enforce it at the time, and in the manner that they do.

While ensuring that the NYPD complies with this verification requirement, especially where respondents are unrepresented, will be difficult, this legislation provides an additional remedy and protection to affected residents. By adding a layer of discretion in enforcement, this change will remove the ability of the NYPD to claim they are merely enforcing a court order.

As referenced in the discussion of closing orders, once an injunction is enforced and a family is removed from their home, the bargaining power of the parties in negotiating settlement drastically changes, especially for pro se residents. Every time a closing order is enforced where there is a possibility that the alleged nuisance has been ameliorated or the offending party has vacated, the risk increases that innocent residents will permanently lose their homes or exclude innocent loved ones.

We hope this change will have the effect intended and put a stop to evictions where the alleged misconduct is no longer occurring. As always, we are available to discuss possible amendments to help strengthen this legislation.

(5) No. 1320 (Council Member Johnson and The Speaker)A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation requiring laboratory reports in drug-related nuisance abatement cases
We strongly support this legislation. Most of our clients who are charged with possession of a controlled substance are prosecuted based on “the experience and expertise” of the arresting officers. Many marijuana arrests are predicated on field tests. A recent ProPublica investigation into the widespread reliance on such cheap field tests for controlled substances by inadequately trained police officers in scientifically unsound conditions. The outlet estimates that “every year at least 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test results.” In response, the Safariland Group, the largest manufacturer of the test kits, released a statement that “field tests are specifically not intended to be used as a factor in the decision to prosecute or convict a suspect…Our training materials and instructions make it clear that every test kit, whether positive or negative, should be confirmed by an independent laboratory.”[1] Positive findings in proper laboratory tests should be a prerequisite in any criminal conviction for an offense relating to controlled substances. Requiring them in nuisance abatement proceedings is an important step in the right direction, though I must reiterate that drug charges should not precipitate an eviction by the NYPD or any other city agency, regardless of the lab findings.

This change is necessary not just to ensure the substance alleged actually was illegal, or to encourage the NYPD to conduct laboratory testing, but also to ensure they don’t ignore and omit previously conducted negative lab results and simply allege drugs were found based solely on disproven arrest records. So long as judges understand and enforce the requirement of lab reports, this change has the potential to limit many of the most egregiously frivolous filings.

(6) No. 1321 (Council Member Johnson and The Speaker) — A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring a police or peace officer to personally witness a drug violation to file an action under the nuisance abatement law
We support this legislation. We note, however, the NYPD, and at least one local District Attorney, lack any accountability measures to ensure police officers do not falsely represent to a court that they have witnessed an offense; in one case involving a BDS client, a judge found that three officers in the 67th Precinct had perjured themselves in court, yet they remain on the beat and the District Attorney apparently continues to rely on their word for prosecutions.[2] That said, this legislation could give our civil attorneys the opportunity to cross-examine the police officer who served as a witness in the criminal case.

(7) 1323 – By Council Member Koslowitz and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) — A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to prohibiting permanent exclusions pursuant to the nuisance abatement law.
BDS supports this bill’s intention of limiting the harm of exclusion to one year for individuals who are named in nuisance abatement actions (or up to three years if corporation counsel can demonstrate through clear and convincing evidence that unique circumstances exist such that a greater period up to 3 years is required to abate the nuisance).

However, in our experience, whether a bar excluding someone from their home or business is one or two of three years is irrelevant to our clients, all of whom are tenants. In practice, New York City landlords evict the leaseholder at the point of the nuisance abatement and find a new tenant. Once evicted, the exclusion is de facto lifted because our clients no longer have access to their home.  The ProPublica/Daily News report noted that tenants and homeowners lost or had already left homes in three-quarters of the 337 cases where they were able to determine the outcome. The other cases were either withdrawn without explanation, were missing settlements, or were still active.[3] The ProPublica data backs up our experience representing clients – that this reform, while well-intentioned, would not protect the vast majority of people facing nuisance abatement actions.

Furthermore, the law is not explicit that any settlement reached after a nuisance abatement action is filed must be reviewed and signed off on by the presiding judge. While decisions rarely result in permanent exclusion, the NYPD often asks for such exclusion as a condition of dismissing the case. Even if a court disposition cannot exceed one or three years, that would not stop the NYPD from facilitating a tenant’s voluntary agreement to permanently exclude an individual in exchange for dismissal.

For these reasons, we would ask the Council to look for alternate means to strengthen this bill.  As always, we are available to assist in amending the bill to go further to accomplish its stated aims.

(8) 1326 – By Council Members Levin, Torres, Williams, and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to repealing the padlock law.
BDS strongly supports repeal of the Padlock Law, which permits the NYPD to close a residence or business housing illicit activities after two offenses and one conviction without a judicial order. According to the Council, the NYPD has not used this draconian remedy for more than 15 years, and this bill will permanently abolish it. We have never heard of this law being used in Brooklyn, though we rarely represent clients with stores and generally only represent tenants.

The Padlock Law set a much lower standard for closing a residence or business than the nuisance abatement process and granted nearly unfettered power to the NYPD that unsurprisingly resulted in abuse. The Council’s wholesale repeal of the law recognizes the importance of due process and rejects granting the NYPD broad authority to act without judicial oversight.

(9) 1327 – By Council Members Levine, Gibson, Johnson, and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring reporting on the use of the nuisance abatement law.
BDS strongly supports this reporting bill. We believe it is also encouraging to see the Council pursuing substantive reform at the same time as they require reporting on these practices. We hope the data will allow for meaningful review and oversight of the effect these changes have on these practices and lead to further amendments as necessary.

(10) Proposed Int. 1333-A – in relation to establishing a statute of limitations for the nuisance abatement law and repealing provisions of the nuisance abatement law that define some types of nuisances.
BDS strongly supports the creation of a statute of limitations of four months for filing nuisance abatement actions. As the New York Court of Appeals appropriately noted, statutes of limitations are valuable because they “protect individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts may have become obscured by the passage of time” and they “encourag[e] law enforcement officials [to] promptly investigate suspected… activity.”[4]

(11) 1338 – By Council Members Salamanca, Johnson, and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring procedures for the corporation counsel when filing actions under the nuisance abatement law.
BDS strongly supports the Council’s objective to preclude the NYPD from filing actions based on sealed records but we do not believe this bill, as written, will accomplish this goal. Our Criminal Procedure Law already precludes the NYPD from relying on sealed records in subsequent legal proceedings. Thus, if anything, this bill really only reiterates what the small number of New Yorkers who challenge these cases with legal assistance will already be aware of. For the City Council’s bill to have any force in protecting pro se litigants, there would need to be a penalty for use of sealed records or put in a requirement that no closing order will be granted unless the NYPD make showing that none of the enumerated allegations resulted in favorable dispositions with sealed records. This would then put the onus on the judge to check each factual allegation before signing a closing order.

Arrest and court records in cases that are dismissed are already sealed by operation of law. Yet the NYPD routinely files public nuisance abatement cases based exclusively on these records months after they have been sealed. Where an individual is pro se they may be locked out of their home or agree to exclude family members based upon a court action that directly contradicts the purpose of the sealing laws explicitly aimed at rendering the arrest a nullity. These laws are intended to be so strong, despite the NYPD’s refusal to follow them, that an individual whose case has been dismissed is entitled to state under oath that they have never been arrested.  Yet the NYPD is routinely seeking to evict the most vulnerable citizens based entirely on these arrests that, by operation of law, never occurred. The NYPD attorneys, in effect, are violating the law each time they file one of these cases based upon sealed records.

Perhaps not surprisingly, but infuriatingly, the NYPD is usually willing to settle cases based on sealed records when confronted on the issue by an attorney, but the cases where new Yorker’s who are supposed to be protected by these laws can retain counsel are few and far between. For every case we successfully settle due to the existence of sealed records, there are countless more that the City is prosecuting against pro se individuals. ProPublica found that only 22% of those without lawyers reached settlements with police that allowed them to keep their apartments without barring anyone, versus 43% of tenants with lawyers.[5] In our experience, representation by counsel is often the difference between staying in your home or not.

The NYPD practice of knowingly using sealed records and prosecuting claims based solely on sealed records continues. The NYPD should be required to take steps to comply with state law and implement some measures to ensure records that should be sealed are no longer accessible and that any records copied or sent to other agencies or entities are destroyed.

This bill will not create any greater incentive for the NYPD to comply with existing law. Our office is happy to work with the Council to explore further what kind of language would actually accomplish the bill’s intent.

We also support the second provision of Int. 1338, which would require that agencies seeking nuisance abatements provided defendants with “personal service upon a natural person as provided in the civil practice law and rules.”

This change, similar to the removal of the provisions permitting temporary closing orders, will go a long way in ensuring that residents are not locked out of their homes without any notification or before any opportunity to confront the allegations against them.

(12) 1339 – By Council Member Torres and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to restricting certain orders and dispositions pursuant to the nuisance abatement law.
BDS strongly supports this bill. This legislation will restrict any action enforced pursuant to the Nuisance Abatement Law to only the least restrictive remedy, meaning that a judge could evict a person or shutter a residence only if there were no less burdensome means of ceasing the nuisance. This bill would also prohibit the application of this law from restricting the rights of any person who was not aware or had no reason to be aware of a nuisance.

Again, we support the Council’s efforts to ensure these laws are used and injunctions are enforced only where necessary, but these laws were already drafted, and allegedly used, only where there were no less restrictive means available. Nonetheless, closing orders, voluntary exclusions and homelessness resulted in an extremely large percentage of cases. Presumably the judges who signed these orders are persuaded by the City’s language concerning imminent risk to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Implied in the inflammatory language that is standard in these filings is the fact that no other means are available to curb the practices alleged.

That said, the Council is taking a strong stand with this package of legislation, sending a clear message that nuisance abatement actions are generally not an appropriate remedy.

(13) 1344 – By Council Member Williams and The Speaker (Council Member Mark-Viverito) – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to reforming the nuisance abatement law regarding the alcoholic beverage control law.
BDS supports this bill, which adds protections for those facing nuisance abatement cases involving violations of the State’s ABC Law. The bill would require 4 violations of this law to constitute a “nuisance” and restrict these violations to only those in which a reasonable person in the position of the person violating the law would have been aware of such violation. The bill also restricts the application of this portion of the Nuisance Abatement Law to “continued, willful, and flagrant” violations.

We recommend that the City apply the proposed language allowing a defense of a reasonable person without knowledge of the violation to all other nuisance abatement cases, not just those involving violations of the ABC Law.

Thank you for considering my comments. BDS looks forward to continuing to work with the Council to make our criminal justice system more fair, effective and humane. If you have any questions, please contact me at bbryan@bds.org or (718) 254-0700 x 351.

[1] Ryan Gabrielson & Topher Sanders, Busted: Common Roadside Drug Test Routinely Produces False Positives, ProPublica, July 7, 2016, available at https://www.propublica.org/article/common-roadside-drug-test-routinely-produces-false-positives.

[2] Nick Pinto, The Incredibles: Judges Said These Cops Can’t Be Trusted, So Why Does the D.A. Rely on Them?, The Village Voice, Nov. 1, 2016, available at http://www.villagevoice.com/news/the-incredibles-judges-said-these-cops-cant-be-trusted-so-why-does-the-da-rely-on-them-9292168.

[3] Sarah Ryley, No Conviction Home, NY Daily News, Feb. 5, 2016, available at http://interactive.nydailynews.com/2016/02/nypd-nuisance-abatement-actions-boot-hundreds/.

[4] Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112, 114-15, as cited in People v. Seda, 93 NY 2d 307, 311 (N.Y. 1999).

[5] Ryley, No Conviction Home.



Mr. L, his family, and his BDS Padilla Attorney Michelle Assad after winning 212(c) relief in July 2016

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



Nick Malinowski


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Public Safety

Oversight Hearing on

Examining the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board

October 21, 2016

My name is Nick Malinowski, I am here on behalf of Brooklyn Defender Services, which provides high-quality multi-disciplinary criminal, family and immigration defense, civil legal services such as housing, benefits, education and social work support to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. Each of our clients, by definition, has had an interaction with the New York City Police Department and its officers, giving us a front row seat from which we can consider mechanisms of police accountability in New York City. We thank the City Council Committee on Public Safety, and Chair Vanessa Gibson, for holding this important oversight hearing on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and for inviting us to attend.

Background: The Importance of Police Accountability and Legitimacy
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.

There is a growing interest in the role of civilian oversight to address the crisis of police accountability. While the administration has stressed opportunities for the NYPD to, as they say, “reform itself from within,” history has not proven this to be the most expedient path to progress. Rather, anti-corruption commissions from the 1970s (Knapp Commission) and the early 1990s (Mollen Commission), followed by law suits including Floyd v. City of New York, Ligon v. City of New York, Raza v. City of New York have generated the biggest wins for civil rights and policing reform. The CCRB is generally considered a national model for civilian bodies, yet the question as to whether it actually deters police misconduct remains an open one; in fact, the CCRB suggested in its 2015 annual report that it would be studying this very question. We anxiously await the results.

While much of the national focus is on deaths in police custody, or at the hands of law enforcement, it is through non-fatal daily punitive interactions, nearly 1 million each year, that most people experience the police in New York City. One of the major changes in the courtroom resulting from the massive influx of arrests accompanying the shift towards broken windows policing is the reality that most cases rely on the testimony of a single police officer alone, rather than a civilian-generated complaint. Deference to prosecutorial power and discretion and sentencing guidelines that mandate long prison sentences have made trials nearly extinct, and thus the integrity of the police officer has become paramount to our system of criminal justice in New York City.

The importance of, and challenges of, accountability become even more apparent as we learn more about the importance of perceptions of legitimacy and how trust in the police drives down violence of all kinds. A recent study in Milwaukee showed that some people, particularly in areas of high police involvement, stopped calling 911 to report crimes after high-profile examples of police misconduct[1]. We need to cease considering police misconduct as a case of “bad apples” and look towards systemic reforms and accountability measures. The racial gap in perceptions of policing is widening, along with other forms of polarization in our country. Nationally, confidence in the police is at an all-time low[2].

Current Holes in Accountability
The city needs to do more to protect the public from problem officers. New York City is home to one of the most secretive regimes in the country when it comes to police transparency. It is all but impossible for the public, or defense attorneys, to see police disciplinary records or any administrative actions resulting from alleged or substantiated misconduct. Compare these privacy protections to those experienced by our clients in criminal court, who are accused sometimes of serious offenses but much more frequently of minor behaviors less damaging to a sense of public order than police misconduct. Is it more important for the public to know which of their neighbors has stolen hygiene products from a chain pharmacy, or which officers in their communities carry substantiated claims of false arrest, brutality or other abuses of authority? Unfounded and unsubstantiated claims of gang involvement are used against our clients routinely, yet we are unable to include substantiated claims of misconduct against their accusers. Recently the Office of Court Administration sought corrections for 36,000 records where criminal histories meant to be sealed were left open; the state sells these records to third-party vendors who sell the information, even when it’s inaccurate, to landlords, bankers, anyone who asks. Sealed information from RAP sheets is also regularly leaked to news outlets by law enforcement personnel, in violation of state law. When the names and photographs of our young clients are distributed to the media, our City has already done them grievous lifetime harm that cannot be undone by findings of innocence, youthful offender adjudications, or subsequent rehabilitation. As a general rule privacy has been greatly degraded in all areas except for police misconduct and discipline. Why?

Because the City has no apparatus for publicly collecting and disseminating these data and records, community groups are left tracking police officers in their precincts in order to try to produce some semblance of accountability. While the public, especially with cell-phone video, have done tremendous public good as a result, the city should be concerned that what is really a government obligation has been filled by community members as a public safety necessity. What is left is a well-founded public perception that the City will only act on police reforms when it is forced to do so. The CCRB should be tasked with providing the public with greater access to the performance and disciplinary backgrounds of officers in local precincts. We cannot hide behind state laws that seem to frustrate this task.

To the agency’s credit, the CCRB has attempted to gain access to some police records, but has been blocked by the City Law Department, which the City Charter provides with final say over areas of litigation pursued by the CCRB. This is an obvious conflict of interest and disrupts any claims of the CCRB being an independent agency. The Council should look into ways to make the CCRB independent of the Law Department, which, of course, defends the City in Civil Law suits stemming from police misconduct. As a civilian oversight body, the CCRB should be accountable to the people of New York, and specifically to those people who have been victimized by police misconduct.

In keeping with this premise, the Council could consider changing the City Charter to allow the CCRB to have final disciplinary say over police officers, rather than deferring this responsibility to the police commissioner. The CCRB has itself acknowledged that it does not know if the penalties resulting from substantiated misconduct claims have any deterrent effect. Troublingly, for the most problematic officers, complaints stacked up after five or more years of service time, perhaps indicating that as they were disciplined they grew more comfortable with misconduct than before.

Brooklyn-Specific Concerns
Brooklyn was the borough with the most CCRB complaints in 2015. Specifically, the 75th and 73rd precincts were among the top two precincts in the City for CCRB complaints, with Brooklyn North Headquarters continuing to be another problematic command. The 75th precinct is also the precinct that generates the highest number of civil lawsuits against the City related to police misconduct, and with the most civil forfeiture claims as well. With the benefit of the CCRB’s recent move toward more precise record keeping, we have also learned, unfortunately, that based on the number of complaints, Brooklyn is home to five of the six worst precincts for LGBTQ New Yorkers. While the Brooklyn District Attorney has won accolades for his conviction integrity unit, this successes expose a history of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the borough that extends back decades.

We ask City Council today, what is being done to reverse these trends, many of which have gone wholly unchecked for years? The CCRB should have the power to recommend officers be transferred to a different precinct following substantiated misconduct. Advocates for police accountability, which include our clients and constituents, rightly seek the dismissal of problematic officers; however, historically this has been all but impossible to achieve. In one of our precincts, civilian video-tape has led to the substantiation of misconduct by several officers who nevertheless remain in the community. It is truly a slap in the face to people victimized by City employees of the Police Department when they are forced into repeated interactions with the same officers. At the very least, the City could explore getting problematic officers off the street, especially in the precincts and communities where they have victimized people.

The Glaring Absence of CCRB in the Courtroom
In its 2015 annual report, the CCRB acknowledged doing no outreach in criminal courts around the City. Roughly 600,000 people a year are summonsed or arrested by the NYPD; all of these people by definition have had contact with a police officer and thus an interaction that has the potential to include police misconduct. Just as the City uses targeted outreach to promote the services of 311 to tenants whose landlords might be illegally denying them heat in winter, we ask the City Council to push CCRB to make outreach in the courts a priority.

Last year a BDS client won his criminal case after a judge found that officers from the 67th precinct in Flatbush were not trustworthy. This was a case where a gun was planted on one of our clients. But what has the city done to curb the authority of these officers who nevertheless may be making arrests even today? How would the public even know? The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said he would launch an investigation into the precinct, but more than a year later we have heard nothing. Similarly, the CCRB has found 60 police officers guilty of making false statements during CCRB hearings, though the agency has not published any disciplinary reports relating to these officers. If these officers made false statements to the CCRB, it warrants an investigation into whether they made false statements to courts as well. Does the CCRB have authority to consider cases dismissed or otherwise adjudicated in court with evidence of officer misconduct? If not the CCRB, who should be looking at these types of issues?

More recently a client was falsely arrested; his case was finally dismissed once surveillance video of the arrest was recovered. We knew initially that the officer involved in the arrest had been involved in misconduct due to newspaper articles, alone, but did not have enough facts about the resolution of the initial case to make a persuasive argument to a judge about the instant matter. Eventually our client was vindicated in his claims to innocence by video, but the City should have an interest in preventing cases like this from ever occurring in the first place, and resolving them immediately rather than having to wait for surveillance video. At least this client wasn’t waiting in jail, but of course that happens as well.

Historically our office has been hesitant to work with the CCRB because of the potential negative impact on open criminal matters. Currently we are working with the CCRB to implement a new process for encouraging clients to make complaints of misconduct first to us, and then to the CCRB, so that we can protect their rights as they pertain to the criminal case. The CCRB’s interest in case processing times can conflict with appropriate concern for the rights of people facing criminal charges. Our clients have been told by CCRB that their cases will be closed as “non-compliant” after we advised them to delay testifying due to complicated criminal court matters. People should not be forced into such a choice. To the extent that attorneys serve as reporting non-witnesses to a CCRB complaint, the CCRB should update its rules to provide counsel with all information that is provided to the police and other parties to traditional cases. We hope that by working with CCRB we can develop a process for people with pending criminal cases that works for everyone, and will help the CCRB to collect complaints from our clients.

In speaking with our clients about these issues, the reactions have been decidedly mixed. While some have expressed interest in filing complaints, others have declined, telling us that the CCRB process is unsatisfactory because nothing ever happens to the police officer. It’s hard to explain to someone that at most an officer who has been found to have engaged in serious misconduct could lose a couple vacation days. There is not much incentive for our clients to spend a lot of time following up on these complaints if the outcomes will not be satisfactory. Meanwhile, the CCRB has emphasized mediation as a desired result to reach understanding between police officers and civilians. We agree that a great deal of good can come from this type of conflict resolution, but wonder why the City has prioritized this only in cases of civilians making complaints about police misconduct. We would like to see the City Council look into expanded the use of mediation in the criminal court context as well.

General Concerns for Greater Policing Accountability
The CCRB’s 2015 annual report raises significant issues related to stops and searches and civilian filming of police activity that should prompt action by the City Council. Documented Stop and Frisks have dropped in New York City from 685,724 in 2011 to 22,563 in 2015; however the ratio of complaints to recorded stops has skyrocketed, while the racial make-up of people in reported stops exposes serious questions about racial equity. In 2011, there were 1,655 CCRB complaints related to Stop and Frisk, making the complaint to stop ratio 1:414. In 2015 there were 888 CCRB complaints related to Stop and Frisk, a decline, but one that puts the new complaint to stop ratio at 1:25. This shockingly steep increase combined with the findings of Peter Zimroth, the federal Stop and Frisk monitor, that officers are not always reporting stops is concerning. Similarly we do not always see UF-250s or other paperwork describing stops in arrest information provided to the court, all of which leads us to question whether the decline in stop and frisks has perhaps been overstated.

Similarly, in 2011 there were 58,363 documented searches, which drew 981 CCRB complaints for a ratio of 1:59. In 2015, there were just 4,204 documented searches, leading to 485 complaints, for a ratio of 1:9. Again these numbers lead us to question whether or not searches are occurring without being properly recorded. These issues point for a need for greater City Council oversight of the NYPD as a general matter. Intros 182 & 541, otherwise known as the Right to Know Act, would perhaps mitigate some of these concerns.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. We look forward to continuing to work with the Council to create meaningful police accountability in our City. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 269) or nmalinowski@bds.org.

[1] http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/oct16asrfeature.pdf

[2] http://www.gallup.com/poll/183704/confidence-police-lowest-years.aspx



Yung-Mi Lee – Supervising Attorney, Criminal Defense Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Courts and Legal Services

Oversight Hearing: Evaluating the Progression of Justice Reboot

October 26, 2015

My name is Yung-Mi Lee. I am a Supervising Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). I have practiced as a criminal defense attorney in New York and New Jersey for over 22 years. I currently represent misdemeanor and felony clients in Brooklyn criminal and Supreme Court.

BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. We thank the City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services and the Committee on Public Safety for the opportunity to testify about Justice Reboot and case processing in Brooklyn.

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.

Justice Reboot aims to reduce “unnecessary incarceration” by reducing court processing times.[3] While a laudable goal in concept, in a system where the favored outcome is a plea bargain, the singular focus on case-processing time results in pressure on the defendant to take a plea even if that plea is not fair or does not reflect his or her individual circumstances.  As the attorney for those clients, we agree that the courts should move cases expeditiously but we warn against the tyranny of harsh and inflexible time limits and pressures because they can work against individualized justice and fairness.

There are ways beyond simply expediting cases to significantly reduce the jail population in NYC.  For example, an honest look at the District Attorneys’ policies regarding bail requests could be start.  Since every stay at Rikers cost NYC thousands of dollars, the District Attorneys, as elected officials, should be held accountable for the manner in which they recommend the use of these expensive resources.  Another important example would be to promote the better transfer of information about the case to the defense earlier in the proceedings.  Although reform of the discovery laws would require legislative change, the City Council and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice have the ability to persuade prosecutors to adopt a policy of voluntary discovery that would immediately improve the case processing time of cases, dramatically improve the fairness of the proceedings and would save the City millions of dollars in reduced pending caseloads and pre-trial incarceration. .

Justice Reboot’s efforts to reduce the duration of felony cases has resulted in a drop in the number of pending jail cases that are two or more years old. Yet 2016 data from the Office of Court Administration shows that the number of pending felony cases is up since 2015.

The OCA data is consistent with the trends that BDS has seen over the past few years. BDS data and case tracking shows that the number of indicted felony cases has increased and so has the length of the life of those cases. Indeed, we have the exact same number of felony cases where clients are in jail for more than one year as of the end of September as we did in April, when Justice Reboot was announced. While the system is resolving older cases at a slightly faster rate than a year ago, we now have more felony cases and indictments and the cases last, on average, longer than they did a year ago, so there is no net gain. At BDS, we are not feeling the impact of Justice Reboot on our case load.

It is clear that the project’s emphasis on prioritizing the oldest cases has not worked to reduce Rikers populations in any meaningful way. We recommend, instead, that the project instead on understanding the causes of delay and incentivizing the courts and prosecutors to reduce unnecessary incarceration, in line with the Council’s and MOCJ’s objectives.

(1) Qualitative Review of Cases
The City should evaluate the cases that are approximately six months old rather than only the oldest cases.  These cases are the ones where early plea bargaining has not been successful.  Some of these cases are intended for trial and those cases should be expedited.  Cases where there are impediments to resolving the case by plea bargain should be analyzed as to the reason.  It is better to determine the best path of the case early on, including alternatives to incarceration, and have the time for the parties to agree and pursue these options.  At this point there should be an emphasis on reducing or eliminating bail for our clients who are still incarcerated after so long, particularly on cases where a non-jail disposition is possible.

(2) To truly decrease case processing times, DA’s should turn over the police reports early in the case.
The greatest injustice in New York’s criminal justice system is that our criminal procedure laws do not require early disclosure of the evidence on the case to the defense.  This lack of information is unfair and results in wrongful convictions.  It also has a pernicious effect on the process of plea bargaining.  Without any information on the case, it is hard for the defendant to trust the attorney when we recommend acceptance of a plea.  It is hard for the defense attorney to even assess the legitimacy of a plea offer without the police reports.  Without the information we need to negotiate the plea bargain we believe is fair and appropriate, we are unable to move the process forward.  Instead the case ends up in a standstill for months.  When the case finally comes to trial, our experience is that the plea offer often drops significantly.  In Brooklyn, many cases are subject to open file discovery due to the policy of the DA’s office.  Our data shows that the open file discovery alone reduces the average length of case by six months.  Due to the expense associated with delay, the City Council should request that the District Attorneys explain why they decline to adopt an open file discovery policy for all cases other than those in which they are concerned about the witness’ safety.

We spoke in depth about the need for discovery reform at the Committee on Courts and Legal Services hearing on September 23, 2016. Please see our testimony, available on www.bds.org, for more information along with recommendations on what the Council can do to support statewide discovery reform.

(3) Encourage prosecutors and judges to think holistically about the consequences of their bail recommendations and decisions
The Vera Institute of Justice completed a groundbreaking report detailing how New Orleans went about reducing the number of people the city incarcerates on any given day by more than two-thirds since Hurricane Katrina.

The researchers found that decreasing the number of jail beds from 5,832 to 1,438 was critical in reducing incarceration. “There’s absolutely no underestimating how important it is to constrain demand for jail beds by restricting supply,” one researcher said. By capping the number of available beds, the City Council sent a signal to everyone in the system—police, prosecutors, judges—that jail was a resource that was not to be overused.[4]

Similarly, in Rochester, the number of jail beds is limited.  Each day the court is advised about the number of available slots and the Judges are able to use the resource in way that makes the most sense.

The City Council could encourage the Office of Court Administration to generate information for Judges regarding their use of jail beds.  Prosecutors could also be required to keep data on their own bail requests so that the public would have access to that information.  This could also form the basis for DA self-evaluation regarding bail practices. Judges and prosecutors should have some accountability for the expense associated with setting bail.  In addition, the Council should recommend eliminating thousands of jail beds in NYC rather than increasing the supply, as has been requested by DOC.

Of note, the New Orleans City Council also changed the summons system, resulting in officers writing summonses for 70 percent of nonviolent offenders.

The New York City Council has already taken important steps in reforming summonses and how NYPD handles low-level cases. We look forward to seeing the fruits of those reforms when they go into effect next year. But the other lesson from the Vera report is clear: in order to lower the number of people the system incarcerates, we have to take away the incentives for incarceration and provide fewer opportunities for incarceration.

The City Council should consider whether the goal of the Justice Reboot initiative, to reduce case processing times, is sufficient to properly guarantee the most limited and appropriate use of pre-trial detention. Although clearly one important aspect of reducing the incarceration rate at Rikers, other measures that get to the heart of the bail decision and the pre-trial process must also be addressed.  A drastic increase in programs and policies to address mental illness, poverty, addiction, homelessness, and widespread discrimination would go a long way to doing the decreasing incarceration by stopping the cycle of incarceration and reducing the chance of re-arrest while improving the life circumstances of poor people of color in NYC .

We look forward to working with you to achieve these goals. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at ylee@bds.org or 718-254-0700 ext. 104.

[1] Mayor’s Management Report, available at http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/downloads/pdf/MMR_FY15_FINAL.pdf

[2] Rikers Island Population Demographics, FY16 Qtr 4, available at http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/downloads/pdf/FY16_4TH_QUARTER_INTRO_766_ADP_ADMITS.PDF.

[3] Press Release: Mayor de Blasio and Chief Judge Lippman Announce Justice Reboot, an Initiative to Modernize the Criminal Justice System, Office of the Mayor, April 14, 2015, available at http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the.

[4] Calvin Johnson, Mathilde Laisne, & Jon Wool, Criminal Justice: Changing Course on Incarceration, Data Center Research (June 2015), available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/gnocdc/reports/The+Data+Center_NOI10_Changing+Course+on+Incarceration.pdf.



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.”



Keren Farkas – Supervising Attorney, Education Unit


Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Juvenile Justice, Education, and Fire and Criminal Justice Services

Oversight Hearing on

Educational Services for Detained and Placed Youth

November 30, 2016

My name is Keren Farkas. I am the head of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) education unit. BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for tens of thousands of clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the City Council Committees on Juvenile Justice, Education, and Fire and Criminal Justice Services for the opportunity to testify today about the quality of educational services for detained and placed youth.

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as a public defender office in Brooklyn.  We have developed a model of specialization to best represent certain types of clients, including adolescents.  Through specialized units of the office, we provide extensive wrap-around services that meet the needs of these traditionally under-served clients in a comprehensive way. This includes helping young people and their families navigate the public education bureaucracy during and after contact with the criminal justice and family court system.

BDS’ Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients. We work with young people impacted by the child welfare and criminal justice systems, including youth detained at Rikers, Horizons and Crossroads.  As a legal and social work team, we work to improve our clients’ access to education, and a significant portion of our advocacy relates to school discipline, special education, reentry and alternative pathways to graduation.

BDS is grateful to the City Council and Councilmember Dromm for introducing a new piece of legislation, Int. No. 1148, that would require the Department of Education to report to City Council about East River Academy. We support the legislation and hope the enhanced transparency will lead to better educational services and outcomes for youth at Rikers. I will conclude my testimony with several brief recommendations that we believe will strengthen Int. No. 1148. First, however, my comments will highlight the education barriers that we see our school age clients at Rikers Island experience.

Educational Services for Youth Incarcerated on Rikers Island
The best way that the City could help our youth would be to avoid sending them to Rikers, the horrors of which are well documented, and focus on diverting them from the criminal justice system altogether. However, in the interim, the City can do better to ensure that our young people obtain the education that they are entitled to under law.

First, I want to emphasize that we continuously find the Department of Education staff at East River Academy on Rikers Island to be caring and dedicated.  We see them treat our clients with respect and strive to do the very best that they can, particularly given the challenges that educating young people in a jail environment pose. Further, we are encouraged by the various improvements at East River Academy over the past year. These developments include enrollment increases among 18-21 year olds, greater access to vocational education, and targeted resources to address the school reentry challenges our clients face. We also understand that, starting next quarter, students at East River Academy can earn up to five, rather than three and half, credits per quarter. We attribute these improvements to DOE’s District 79 Leadership as well as collaboration from the DOE Adolescent Advisory Board, of which BDS is a member. That said, the following are our six areas of particular concern:

Problem 1: DOC Interference with Education Access
The majority of BDS’ 18-21 year old clients at Rikers are detained in the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC). Young people at GMDC regularly report to us that they are not transported to school. We understand that corrections officers are required to call for each enrolled student in their housing unit and transport the student to the school floor. However, we often hear of breakdowns in this system. For instance, some clients have reported that the Corrections Officers do not call for students at all or pick up students late in the school day so they miss class time. Others report of frequent, sometimes multiple day, lock-downs, where all students are denied school access. Because DOC is not transparent about the frequency of the lock-downs, we cannot assess the extent that our clients are denied school hours, but we are concerned that it is significant.

We are also appalled that DOC deducts class time from out-of-cell time allotment for adolescents in Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH), a highly restrictive new form of solitary confinement. This practice discourages youth in the ESH from pursuing their education.

We have also heard that DOC staff discourages clients from attending school due to concerns of violence between inmates during transport or at school. While there is an acknowledged problem of violence at Rikers that must be addressed, particularly at GMDC. DOC interference with the student’s decision to participate in school is neither appropriate nor the right solution to the problem. As an example, I will share a client story from last week:

A is serving a year sentence on Rikers Island. A explained to her BDS social worker that she feels frustrated because she feels as though DOCS is trying to push her out of school. Just last week they brought her paperwork to “sign herself out” of school. She told her social worker that she refused to sign them and continues to tell them that she wants to attend school. Apparently, DOCS has determined that her housing unit has problems with another unit. Because of this “beef” they won’t allow A’s housing unit to move when the other unit’s residents are on the school floor or in the hall. A was called last week for school but hasn’t been called since. She is frustrated as she is extremely motivated to attend school while she is in for the next several months, but will not be able to get an education, even though she has the time, if the guards refuse to take her to the school. A already has 15 credits towards her Regents Diploma.

We also have clients at GMDC who choose not to go to school at all because they are concerned about violence. Notably, our 16- and 17-year-old clients housed at the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) do not report similar barriers attending school, likely due in large part, to the fact that school attendance is mandatory for this age range.

Solution: The City should call upon DOC and DOE to decentralize the schools, particularly at GMDC, and allow young people who want to learn the opportunity to do so in their units.

Problem 2: Youth at OBCC do not even have a school that they can attend
BDS still has 18-21 year old clients at Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC). While these young adults are school-age and many are interested in preparing for their High School Equivalency or Regents Diploma, East River Academy is not available at OBCC. Recently, several clients housed at OBCC have reported that they want to attend school, but have chosen to remain at OBCC, rather than transfer to GMDC, because of concerns of violence. In several instances, they were explicitly discouraged from transferring to GMDC by DOC staff, but not provided with an educational alternative at OBCC. Our clients should not have to choose between safety and school opportunity.

Solution: DOC should be required to create a school in any facility where youth are held, including OBCC.

Problem 3: Too many of our clients are significantly behind in their reading and math levels and require intervention to succeed in school
Many of our clients struggle in school because their reading and math skills are far below grade level. Reading is the building block of learning, and without it, our clients are at a terrible deficit that fosters recidivism, not opportunity. Likewise, limited math skills contribute to low self-confidence, leading to truancy and school disengagement.  East River Academy can be an opportunity to re-engage students in school and provide them with the building blocks to succeed. In order to break the cycle of incarceration and poverty, our clients need access to interventions that will provide additional and targeted support in reading and math skills. We are hopeful that the data that will be provided per Int. No. 1148 will help inform the need to allocate resources to fund these interventions.

Solution: The City Council should fund intensive, research-based remedial reading and math instruction, including additional staffing such as reading specialist positions at East River Academy, to ensure that all of the youth who attend have the opportunity to improve their basic reading and math skills.

Problem 4: Difficult for youth to accrue credits
The East River Academy can be an extremely positive motivator for our clients incarcerated on Rikers Island. When they learn a new skill or receive a certificate of achievement in school, they are proud of their accomplishments and feel excited to continue their education.

However, too many of our clients leave East River Academy empty handed, without academic credits despite participation in class and coursework. We find that this problem occurs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes transcripts are not appropriately or timely updated with notations of full or partial course completion. Difficulties also arise when students return to the community mid-year, because the community school system uses a two semester system while East River Academy now uses trimesters. The timing of a student’s arrival at East River Academy and return to the community can then dictate whether they will receive credits, even if they accrued a substantial amount of seat time. This is harmful as it confuses and discourages the youth. It also becomes wasted time that could have been spent working towards their high school diploma. Another problem students face is that foreign language and elective courses do not appear to be regularly offered. We hope that the additional resources targeted at reentry support will address this problem.

Solution: The City Council should direct the DOE to create guidelines on mid-year credit accumulation and make it possible for youth at East River Academy to obtain partial credits , even if a young person does not complete a module in its entirety.

Problem 5: Youth are often tracked or encouraged to pursue high school equivalency (HSE) courses, even if they are strong candidates for high school diplomas
BDS’s education team works diligently to place our clients in schools that meet their individual needs to ensure future academic success and end the cycle of poverty and incarceration. This advocacy includes our clients on Rikers Island.  We have helped many students enroll in community schools after finishing their time on Rikers, even those that are over-age and under credited.

While at East River Academy, we find that many of our clients are tracked or encouraged to pursue the HSE, rather than obtain their high school diploma. While we appreciate that HSE may be the appropriate choice for a significant number of students, many of our clients express that they would prefer to pursue their high school diploma. With the credit recovery options in the community, including transfer schools, Young Adult Boroughs Centers and some specialized charter schools, it is possible for an over-age under credited student to earn a Regents Diploma. Further, we find that our clients who are connected with the specialized credit recovery schools upon reentry find supportive school settings that can be critical in helping the youth to forge a new path for herself when she returns to the community.

Solution: The counselors at East River Academy should be encouraged to discuss the benefits of high school diplomas with all enrolled students. The City should collaborate with the newly launched Youth Reentry Network to ensure that all youth at East River Academy have access to reentry services, including support and encouragement to continue their education upon return to their communities.

Problem 6: Guards use pepper spray against our clients in the classroom
BDS staff has received multiple reports of students in East River Academy being sprayed with MK9 pepper spray by guards. Our clients report that the spray spreads through the entire school, disrupting class and movement. School counselors have complained as well. It is our experience that MK9 pepper spray can be harmful and is used far too liberally as a matter of first resort, rather than once all other options for managing a situation have been considered.

Solution: The City Council should ban the use of pepper spray in all DOC facilities, or at the very least, correction staff should not be allowed to use MK9 in East River Academy.  Pepper spray is harmful to the students and staff and not conducive to a healthy school environment that inspires learning.

Int. 1148
BDS supports Int. No. 1148. The bill will go a long way towards improving DOE reporting to provide the Council and the public with important information about the quality and parity of education that youth receive at the East River Academy.

We have several brief suggestions to strengthen the Bill:

Suggestions 1: Specifying Use of Force – In Sections 8-11, the bill requires the DOE to report on incidents of use of force during educational programming. As currently written, the definitions of use of force within a single category vary widely. For example, use of force A can mean a chipped tooth or a ruptured spleen, which are very different injuries. Instead of reporting “use of force A” the DOE should be required to report the injury with greater specificity. See 9-141(b)(8-11).

Suggestion 2: Diploma vs. High School Equivalency Track – We appreciate the request for information regarding achievement of HSE and Regents Diploma in Sections 12-14. We suggest modifying the language in Section 12 to specify whether a Regents Diploma was achieved and whether one of the “safety net” options were utilized. Additionally, the DOE should report the percentage of adolescents and young adults, respectively, on the Regents Diploma vs. HSE track.

Suggestion 3: Attendance and Participation– The information requested regarding enrollment in sections 1-2 and 16-17 will be illuminating. We ask the DOE to also report on attendance of enrolled adolescents and young adults. Sections 18-19 reference to “participation” may be encompassing attendance. If so, we suggest “participating” be clearly defined in the Definitions section.

Suggestion 4: Teacher to student ratio – In addition to data regarding teacher to student ratio, as noted in Section 22, the DOE should be required to report on the absolute number and ratios of special education teachers, paraprofessionals, reading specialists and related service providers.

Suggestion 5: Credit Accrual – We appreciate the request for data about credit accumulation in Section 25. Because credit accrual has historically been a confusing and difficult matter for students at East River Academy, we ask that “sufficient period of time,” be defined. We also ask that the DOE report on the average and median seat time accrued by students who were not present for the “sufficient period of time.”

Suggestion 6: Special Education at East River Academy – Greater transparency regarding special education services is certainly needed. In addition to the information already requested, which should be updated to refer to Special Education Plan (SEP), we ask the DOE to specify the (1) the number of students entering with an IEP, (2) the number of students who received an initial special education evaluation while at East River Academy, (3) the number of students recommended for specific services, including classroom settings and related services, and (4) the classifications of students at East River Academy. We hope this information will help ensure the appropriate resources are provided to meet the needs of special education students at East River Academy.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. I am grateful to the Council for inviting me to testify about the challenges that my incarcerated youth clients find in accessing educational services on Rikers.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 292) or kfarkas@bds.org.



Lisa Schreibersdorf – Executive Director


Presented before
The Senate Standing Committee on Children & Families
Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime & Correction
Public Hearing
Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility

February 6, 2017

My name is Lisa Schreibersdorf. I am Executive Director of 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 tens of thousands clients in Brooklyn every year. Our office has a specialized adolescent unit, called the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team, which represented more than 1900 13- to 17-year-olds in Brooklyn criminal and Supreme Court in 2015. In 2016 that number fell to just over 1400. The vast majority of our adolescent clients are charged with misdemeanors and last year only a handful of our clients were sentenced to upstate prison time. At any given time about thirty of our adolescent clients are detained pre-trial at Rikers Island.

I thank the Senate Standing Committee on Children and Families and the Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims for inviting me to speak today about raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York and its impact on the young people that BDS attorneys currently represent.

There is no doubt that New York can and must do better for young people in the criminal justice system. First and foremost, any legislation must involve removing youth from the custody of local jails and NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) prisons as quickly as is feasible and transferring them to safer and more rehabilitative youth facilities. The horrors that 16- and 17-year-olds suffer in adult jails and prisons are well documented and are discussed in detail in the Governor’s own Commission for Youth, Public Safety and Justice Report issued in 2015. Over the past few years advocates across the state have done an incredible job of educating the public and policymakers about the significant harm that 16- and 17-year-olds suffer in adult jails and prisons. We are deeply grateful for their constant efforts to advocate for the immediate removal of youth from adult facilities.

However, as the attorneys who represent these young people in court, we are deeply concerned about any proposal that would harm the tens of thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds who are never exposed to jail or prison time in the adult system, but could potentially face those exact penalties in family court under previous Raise the Age proposals. Yes, we must remove the minority of youth who will be incarcerated from adult facilities, as soon as possible. But we firmly believe that the legislature must not sacrifice the welfare of the vast majority of youth whose cases would be transferred to the more draconian and less transparent Family Court system in its efforts to “raise the age.”

Furthermore, any legislation that intends to improve outcomes for adolescents must navigate the reality that both our adult and juvenile justice system are deeply racist and disproportionately harmful to Black and Latino youth. While only 64 percent of New York City youth are black or Latino, they make up 88 percent of the youth arrested in the city, 92 percent of the youth detained pre-trial, 90 percent of the youth placed in non-secure facilities and a shocking 97 percent of New York City youth in secure Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) facilities. Some upstate counties have studied and observed even more disparate outcomes. According to the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, black youth in Monroe County were 20 times more likely than white justice-involved youth to be admitted to secure detention. In Onondaga County, black youth comprised only 15 percent of the county’s youth population and only 38 percent of the City of Syracuse’s youth population, but they represented almost three‐quarters (73%) of the admissions to secure detention in 2010. Black youth in Onondaga were thus detained at a rate almost five times as high as their proportion in the county’s population. In New Jersey, WNYC just exposed that in some counties, family court judges are twice as likely to approve requests from District Attorneys to prosecute black children as adults than for white or Latino kids. BDS is deeply concerned about any legislation that will give judges more power to sentence youth harshly without providing any additional procedural safeguards to limit racial bias and the potential for incarceration and harsher treatment for young people of color.

Not surprisingly, some states that have raised the age are now faced with the reality that removing cases to an imperfect juvenile court system does not always create better outcomes for youth. States that studied the problems with their delinquency system and used raise the age legislation as an opportunity to improve how they treat adolescents in Family Court have fared much better. BDS calls upon the legislature to work with defenders, the people who have spent their lives fighting for young people in court, to pass raise the age reform that will, beyond ensuring that no young person is worse off than they are under the current law, that New York leads the way in the creation of an adolescent justice system that meets the unique needs of older adolescents in line with modern neuroscience and social science research.

We propose two options for the legislature:

1. Move all youth under the age of 18 into Family Court, no matter what crime they are charged with, and amend the Family Court Act to ensure that youth do not receive harsher punishments in family court than they do in adult court.

Sending all 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court would allow judges to see the wide range of adolescent behavior and allow them to better discern between normal but inappropriate adolescent behavior, like taking another student’s backpack or cell phone at school, and the small percentage of young people who actually commit serious crimes, like rapes and murders. If the ideological underpinning of raise the age is that adolescents are neurologically different than adults and thus less culpable for their actions, then the same holds true for adolescents who commit serious crimes. We believe that if the courts saw the whole spectrum of adolescent behavior, young people would not be punished for low-level crimes with extended terms of probation with onerous conditions or be sent to placement as they often are today.

Furthermore, the legislature should take away the power of Family Court judges to punish a child more harshly under the Family Court Act than they would be able to punish an adult, for the same action, under the Penal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law. If we are committed to raising the age to promote better outcome for youth and communities, then we must also make long-overdue changes to New York’s Family Courts to ensure due process protections, fairness and transparency for all youth, including younger teenagers.

You must also provide funding for more judges and court staff, as our state’s family courts are severely under resourced and overcrowded. Currently, Article 10 child welfare cases can take well over a year from opening arguments until a judge’s decision. Vulnerable families with cases in other parts of the family court system should not be further harmed because of any raise the age legislation.

2. In the alternative, BDS proposes the creation of hybrid adolescent courts where judges would have the authority to act under either the Criminal Procedure Law or the Family Court Act.

Because of many of the systemic problems ingrained in our family courts, we propose that New York institute adolescent courts that combine the protections of the adult criminal system with the programming and possibilities for rehabilitation and sealing in the family court. The court would provide a series of options for quick resolution prior to invoking the highly intrusive procedures in the Family Court Act. Adolescents would maintain their constitutional rights to a jury trial, to be free from self-incrimination and the ability to plea bargain. However, no adolescent should be eligible for adult sentencing, and certainly no adolescent should be eligible for a life sentence. The default should be that most adolescents would avoid incarceratory sentences altogether, and the court would be resourced with alternative to incarceration programs to ensure that even more youth diverted from possible jail and prison sentences. BDS testified in detail about what such a court could look like at the New York City Council Hearing last month. A copy of that testimony is available at: http://bds.org/wp-content/uploads/2017.01.19-City-Council-testimony-on-RTA.pdf.

Alternative Legislative Solutions
Fortunately, the legislature already has a bipartisan model for such legislation that could serve as an important starting point for a more nuanced raise the age conversation. We would ask your committees to take a look at S. 7394 (Saland)/A.10257 (Lentol) from 2012 and S. 4489A (Nozzolio)/A.7553A (Lentol) from 2013. The bills were iterations of Former Chief Justice Lippman’s Raise the Age Proposal, titled the “Youth Court Act” that would establish a new “Youth Division” to adjudicate cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds and combine the best features of the Family Court and the criminal courts.

Importantly, the 2012 bill required young people tried in the youth part to be held in juvenile facilities, but the 2013 bill did not. BDS firmly believes that 16- and 17-year-olds who have their cases heard in this specialized court part must be removed from adult jails and prisons. Any raise the age legislation that will garner our support must move youths charged with crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 years old into juvenile facilities.

BDS notes that both the 2012 and the 2013 Lippman bills would exclude youth charged with violent crimes from having their cases heard in the part. For the same reasons stated above, it is critical that judges in this part see the wide range of adolescent behavior, including violent criminal behavior. Instead of having the Family Court Act sentencing procedures apply, however, the court could apply the Juvenile Offender Act sentencing to youth charged with violent crimes and be entitled to serve out their sentences until their 21st birthdays in rehabilitative youth facilities. We strongly recommend that the legislature insist that all cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds go to the youth division, as the Lippman bill calls it, and that those young people not face adult sentencing if convicted.

Finally, additional steps should be taken to mitigate the long-term consequences of court contact for 16- and 17-year olds, including raising the age of youthful offender status, opportunities for sealing of prior criminal records, and the elimination of fines, surcharges and civil judgments previously imposed.

Problems with the Governor’s Raise the Age Proposal (2017)
BDS has serious concerns about the Governor’s Raise the Age proposal as drafted in the FY2018 NYS Executive Budget Education, Labor and Family Assistance Article VII Legislation. We raised these concerns with the legislature and executive branch in previous years yet they remain unaddressed in the current version.

Our gravest concern is that the young people most in need of the rehabilitative programming available in the Family Court are excluded from the court altogether and would have their cases heard in adult court as Juvenile Offenders under a new, expanded list of crimes. But perhaps more troublingly, the bill would move youth charged with low-level crimes to Family Court, where they face long periods of probation and placement for misdemeanor crimes where the vast majority receive an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD) on the first court date. Furthermore, according to the Governor’s Commission report, 75 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds already have their convictions converted to Youthful Offender adjudications, sealing their conviction from the public and protecting them from adult sentencing ranges. The Governor’s bill, and indeed many of the bills put before the legislature in previous sessions, would subject this group of young people, the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes in New York, to harsher sentencing under the Family Court Act.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the research is clear: when it comes to youth, it is best to steer non-violent youthful offenders out of the justice system. Studies show that the vast majority of first-time offenders will never be arrested again, regardless of any intervention they receive. Almost 70 percent of youth who are arrested once are never arrested again. 20 percent of young offenders are re-arrested two or three times, with only six to eight percent falling into the category of three arrests or more. Re-arrest rates appear to mirror the reality in the streets. A recent study found that 91.5 percent of justice-involved youth reported decreased or limited illegal activity during the first three years following their court involvement. Re-offense statistics hold true whether or not first-time offenders are provided diversion interventions. What New York should be doing then, is diverting first time offenders from the system as quickly as possible, as most adult criminal courts already do in most counties in this state, and investing significant resources only in the 20% of cases that are medium or high-risk: cases involving violent or serious crimes. This bill would do the opposite.

Our concerns do not end there. This year and last year’s Governor’s budget bill would also:

• Increase the mandatory minimum for 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of B violent felonies to 5-20 years with a possible bump down if the judge determines that sentence to be “unduly harsh”, as compared to the 3.33-10 years that 14- and 15-year-old face under the existing Juvenile Offender statute.
• Expand the list of designated felonies that expose youth in Family Court to a mandatory 3-5 years in placement, harming youth in the Family Court system as compared to the existing law.
• Allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be charged with violations of harassment and disorderly conduct in Family Court, unlike their younger counterparts, exposing older teens to greater police intervention and much harsher punishment for non-criminal acts in Family Court than they could ever face in adult court.
• There is a post-conviction sealing option in the bill, but it would require people to wait ten years before making the application for sealing, even though Raise the Age is supposed to be about ensuring that adolescents have the right to second chances in their youth.
• While the bill would technically raise the age of Youthful Offender status, it does not allow 19- and 20-year-olds to be eligible for YO sentencing and the adjudication would count against them if they were to pick up charges at a future date, in stark contrast to the existing law.
• The bill would increase the number of Juvenile Offender cases, significantly increasing the number of youth whose cases would be heard in adult court, and removing the opportunity for youth charged with more serious crimes (but not the most serious crimes) from the protections of Family Court.
• While the bill slightly increases the scope of cases that probation should be required to adjust in delinquency cases, it provides so many exceptions (and exceptions to exceptions) so as to make the new presumptions nearly meaningless.
• There is no mention of concurrent jurisdiction under both the criminal procedure law and the Family Court Act for judges in the Youth Part in Supreme.
• And finally, this bill, as compared to previous bills, puts much of the financial responsibility of raising the age back on to cash-strapped counties who can ill afford any increase in costs for the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

In contrast to the executive budget proposals, in 2014 New Jersey state bill S2003/A4299 raised the minimum age for what we in New York would call JO eligibility from 14 to 16, narrowed the list of offenses that would be JO eligible, and amended the standard governing such standards. The New Jersey bill went into effect in 2016.

Under the new law, prosecutors must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the reasons for transfer to adult court outweigh the probability of the juvenile’s rehabilitation by the use of the procedures, services and facilities available to the Family Court prior to the juvenile reaching the age of 26. The new bill also requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison. The bill also eliminates the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, and places time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.

In regards to the transfer of young people most in need of the intensive services that family courts can provide, New Jersey improved their statute to make it more in line with modern brain science. In contrast, New York’s 2016 same-as bill applied the outdated existing statute to 16- and 17-year-olds and the Governor’s bill increased the list of crimes and punishments for 16/17 year-olds who would be tried as JOs. More punitive policies such as these are particularly harmful to young people of color who make up the majority of cases referred to New York’s Family Courts.

My staff and I are willing to explain further why many of these details are of concern. As the people who currently represent adolescents ages 13- to 17-years old in adult courts, we know that the details are the difference between a second chance and prison time. We firmly believe that any of our clients, no matter their age, is entitled to the protections provided to them by the New York and U.S. Constitutions. The words in the legislation matter and will have a direct impact on the young people that we are purporting to help by raising the age.

It is clear that the legislature must act to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from adult jails and prisons. But we hope that the concerns and proposals we raise today help you to move forward on legislation that, at the very least, will not make any young people worse off tomorrow than they are today, and even better, may drastically improve outcomes for all adolescents, their families and communities. New York can and should do this. Your public defenders are here to help.

If you have any questions about my testimony, please feel free to reach out to me at lschreib@bds.org or 718-254-0700 or BDS policy attorney Andrea Nieves at anieves@bds.org.



Lauren Shapiro

Director, Family Defense Practice



Emma S. Ketteringham

Managing Director, Family Defense Practice



Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on General Welfare

Oversight Hearing on

Child Abuse Cases and the Various City Touchpoints for Families

 October 31, 2016

Lauren Shapiro is the Director of the Family Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) and Emma Ketteringham is the Managing Director of the Family Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders (BXD).  Both BDS and BXD are public defender organizations that provide inter-disciplinary, holistic, client-centered representation in the areas of criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, for tens of thousands of clients every year. The Family Defense practices together have represented more than 16,000 clients since their inception in 2007 and have helped thousands of children either remain safely at home with their families or leave foster care and safely reunite with their families.  Our attorneys, social workers and parent advocates are in the field every day interacting directly with Child Protective Service and foster care agency workers.

We thank the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare and, in particular, Chair Stephen Levin, for the opportunity to testify today about the points at which child-welfare involved families interact with various City services.  The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) affects the lives of thousands of children each year – most of whom are low income and African American or Latina – and it is critical that the City Council regularly review and monitor ACS and ensure that it remains accountable for its actions.  At the same time, we appreciate the efforts of the many hard-working staff at ACS and recognize the enormity and complexity of their charge to protect the safety of children while at the same time make efforts to give families the help and services they need to remain together.

Recognizing the Role of Poverty in Child Welfare Cases
In setting and implementing child welfare policy, policymakers must keep in mind what stories in the media ignore: that the vast majority of child welfare cases in Family Court involve allegations of neglect, not abuse, and almost all child welfare cases are related to poverty and the stress that poverty brings to families struggling to survive.[1]  While we are making a number of substantive recommendations in our testimony today, we believe that any conversation about the so-called “failures of the child welfare system” must begin and end with the understanding that the vast majority of families would never become involved with the child welfare system but for their poverty.  Most parents and caregivers become involved with child welfare because of allegations related to failing to provide adequate food, shelter, medical care or child care– reflecting conditions of poverty rather than parental failure or ill will.  Studies have shown that families who are “below the poverty line are 22 times more likely to be involved in the child protection system than families with incomes slightly above it.”[2]  In 2014, the journal Pediatrics published a nationwide study conducted by Cornell University that further clarified the links between poverty and child welfare.[3]   John Eckenrode, one of the study’s authors, found that “reducing poverty and inequality would be the single most effective way to prevent maltreatment of children.”[4]  Indeed, “poverty—not the kind or severity of child mistreatment—is the leading predictor of both placement into foster care and the amount of time that children spend” separated from their parents.[5]

Racial Disparities in the Child Welfare System
The families that populate the child protection system are also disproportionately families of color.  The child welfare system remains once of the most racially segregated institutions in American and the racial disparity of children in foster care must be considered as we fashion changes to the system.  For more than a decade, black children have made up the majority of children in the United States child protection system, despite making up a relatively small portion of the nation’s population. A national study of child protective services by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that “[m]inority children, and in particular African American children, are more likely to be in foster care placement than receive in-home services, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children.”[6]  While racial disproportionality exists in foster care nationally, statistics from New York City illuminate the extent to which foster care placements are concentrated in poor communities of color:  “In 2008, African American children accounted for 27 percent of the children under the age of eighteen in the city but comprised a staggering 57.1 percent of the foster care population. In contrast, 24 percent of the children under age eighteen in New York City were white, but white children comprised only 4 percent of the foster care population.”[7] Data released by ACS for 2013 was nearly identical to the 2008 data.[8]

Family Preservation Should Remain the Priority because Children do Better Overall Remaining with their Families than when they are Placed in Foster Care
Singling out horrific cases and focusing on increased surveillance of families rarely results in the kind of thoughtful reforms that keep children safe and families strong.  A response to Zymere Perkin’s tragic death that relies upon increased reporting, investigations and removals of children from their homes will further reinforce the vulnerability of the families in the system and contribute to the system’s racial disparity. This approach will also lead to the abandonment of the government’s legal and moral obligation to ensure that children are not wrongfully removed from their families and communities; it will be at the expense of opportunities to make the deeper, more systemic changes that will save and improve the lives of the majority of New York City’s children.

Although most foster parents are well intentioned and provide a safe environment, there is overwhelming evidence of the negative outcomes of foster care placements. As the VERA Institute of Justice noted, “research shows that entry into foster care raises the risk of long-term adverse effects on children compared to socioeconomically similar children who are not removed, including poor school performance, homelessness, arrest, chemical dependency, and mental and physical illness.”[9]  In the words of Molly McGrath Tierney, Director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services: “Awful things happen to children in foster care. Short-term, their outcomes for important things like health and education are abysmal and long-term, it just gets worse. Kids that grew up in foster care [are] overwhelmingly destined for the penitentiary.”[10]

Children placed in foster care are more likely to experience psychopathology than children who are not in foster care, with children in foster care being between 2.7 and 4.5 times more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medication than children not in foster care, according to one study..[11]  Studies have found that rates of safety are actually worse for children in foster care than for those in family preservation programs.   For example, one study shows that children are actually twice as likely to die of abuse in foster care.[12]  New York State ranks the third worst for rates of substantiated or indicated reports of maltreatment of children in foster care.  Even these statistics are likely underestimations, as “abuse or neglect by foster parents is not investigated because agencies tolerate behavior from foster parents which would be unacceptable by birth parents.”[13]

Child-protection-involved children tend to leave foster care with more problems than when they entered care. Children exiting foster care have significantly more behavioral problems when compared with their own pre-placement measures of adaptation. Former foster children experience additional negative life outcomes, including higher teen birth rates and lower career earnings.[14]  Former foster children are also disproportionately likely to experience homelessness compared to the general population.[15]

Children who are on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home as opposed to being placed in out-of-home care. In one study, a researcher looked at case records for more than 15,000 children, segregating the in-between cases where a real problem existed in the home, but the decision to remove could go either way.[16]  Despite the fact that the children who remained home did not get extraordinary help, on measure after measure the children left in their own homes fared better than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. All of this evidence demonstrates that keeping children together with their parents, even within homes that are not ideal, is usually preferable to foster care placement.[17]

The adverse consequences of removal can be reduced by placing children who have been removed from their homes with relatives rather than in foster care with strangers. Children fostered by relatives—known as “kinship care”—have fewer behavioral problems than their foster care counterparts.[18]  They also demonstrate better development and better mental health functioning than children in non-kinship foster care.[19] Additionally, children cared for by relatives experience fewer disruptions and a better quality of life while in care: they have fewer placement moves, are more likely to remain in their own school, and are more likely to report liking their placement and wanting it to become permanent.[20]  However, most foster children are not placed with relatives; ACS reports that only a third of children in foster care in New York City are placed in kinship care.[21]  An approach that does not recognize how critical one’s family and home life are to healthy human development, even when troubled or full of challenges and adversity, harms rather than improves the welfare of children and families.

ACS Should Continue Policies to Reduce the Foster Care Census
ACS has worked diligently and successfully to reduce the number of children in foster care in all five boroughs over the past ten years. Since 2007, when the institutional providers for parent representation in New York City were created, the foster care census has been reduced from over 17,000 to under 9,000 children as of October 2016. We must continue in this direction, and not roll back any gains. Notably, there has been no evidence or indication of an increased occurrence in child abuse as the foster care census has dropped. This progress has been possible through the increased availability of preventive services to families in need of support, earlier identification of such families, and greater accountability within the Family Court Systems to ensuring that appropriate service plans are put in place.  These trends must be applauded and not rolled back in response to Zymere Perkin’s tragic death.

The City Must Not Implement Policies That Will Exacerbate the Vulnerability of Families
Since Zymere’s death last month, we have already seen a dramatic and frightening impact on our practices and the lives of child-welfare involved families in New York City. In the last few weeks, the number of emergency and court removals of children has increased, the filings of neglect cases have nearly doubled, and even important decisions about visitation and reunification of families are being affected by the current climate of fear to the detriment of many children.  We have received phone calls from fearful parents who have been investigated in the middle of the night and had their children roused from deep sleep and questioned based on non-emergency concerns.

Instead of relying on surveillance and removals and making the approach to working with the city’s poorest families more punitive, the City should be employing a strategy that encourages families to seek and get the help that they need to take care of their children.  When ACS reacts as they are now out of fear, seeking more removals and pitting case workers against parents in court proceedings, it has the effect of discouraging parents from seeking the help that they need.  For example, in Brooklyn last week, ACS received a call from a mother who stated she was overwhelmed, and was asking for help.  Instead of providing her with assistance, they removed her son, separated the family for three days, and came to court to seek approval to place her son with strangers in foster care.  Cases like this show parents that, when they need help, they cannot count on the city’s administration to provide it to them.  It instead encourages them to isolate and avoid seeking assistance and the help they need to address any risk to their children.  This only worsens outcomes for children.


(1) Continue And Expand ACS’s Commitment To Preventive Services
BXD and BDS strongly support increased funding for preventive services to avoid the need for children to be placed in foster care and to reduce the time children spend in care. In large measure, preventive service programs helped reduce the foster care population from almost 40,000 in 1999 to under 10,000 in New York City today. Keeping families together and children in their homes and communities with services in place, instead of placing children in foster care, prevents the harm and trauma of removing children from their families while saving tax-payer money. We also believe that preventive service programs can and should be delivered more effectively to help families provide safe and stable homes for their children and to reduce the number of children who enter foster care.

For more information and specific recommendations about ACS’s provision of preventive services, please see BDS’s testimony before this committee on March 17, 2015. A copy is available online at: http://bds.org/testimony-before-new-york-city-council-on-acs-dhs-preliminary-fy2016-budget/.

(2) ACS Should Transition To A System Where Child Protective Workers Are Required To Have Social Work Degrees
Child protective workers who conduct initial investigations must make vital assessments about the complex issues many families face, such as domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse.  ACS child protective workers rarely have the credentials of a social work degree and are not adequately trained to make such determinations. They also may lack the expertise and time to help parents navigate complex bureaucracies, such as public assistance, housing, the shelter system, childcare assistance, Medicaid and the Department of Education. This lack of expertise can result in misguided decision-making and improper advice given to families, which jeopardizes family stability. Front-line staff must have adequate training and preparation to be able to truly help families.

Since the late 1980s studies have found that workers with either a BSW or MSW degree in social work have better outcomes than child protective workers in the same jobs who hold non-social work degrees.[22] They received higher performance ratings from supervisors, especially in complex cases; were more effective in permanency planning; remained in the employ of agencies longer; felt safer making home visits alone; and spent less time on paperwork than their non-social work degreed counterparts.[23]  Social workers have specific skills and knowledge in working with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities that grounds the social worker in a much broader understanding of client needs.

Recommendation: Our experiences in the Bronx and Brooklyn are in line with national research and lead us to believe that ACS should prioritize hiring trained, credentialed social workers for child protective positions.

(3) The Housing Crisis In New York City Must Be Addressed And ACS Should Help Homeless Families And Families Living In Unsafe Housing Conditions.
Over a third of our clients live in unsafe housing, family shelters, doubled up, and/or are moving from place to place. Addressing the affordable housing crisis is critical to addressing homelessness and its attendant risks to children.[24]  The data and research on the experiences of homeless children shows that homelessness creates risks to the physical and emotional well-being and educational success of children. For example, children experiencing homelessness have an increased risk of illness compared to children who are not homeless, they suffer disproportionately from food insecurity, as they are twice as likely to go hungry as non-homeless children, and, being homeless has also been demonstrated to be harmful to children’s emotional well-being. Homelessness also causes traumatic disruptions in the lives of children and increases children’s vulnerability to mental illness.

In practice, ACS files neglect petitions against families living in unsuitable housing. Rather than assist families in securing safer living conditions or addressing housing concerns directly, ACS workers frequently suggest that families leave homes deemed to be in poor condition (including NYCHA apartments) to go into the shelter system. While this suggestion meets many of ACS’ short-term goals for ensuring a safe environment for children, it creates an added burden on the already-overburdened NYC shelter system, and there are long-term negative consequences for family stability: the shelter system no longer provides permanent housing options to families; living in many of the family shelters in New York is harmful to children and families; and such a move often disrupts children’s education, as children still are often forced to change schools or travel long distances to get to school.  Rather than address the problem of family homelessness, the system offers a family further displacement in a city shelter or foster care.  Lack of adequate housing also makes it difficult for clients to comply with mandated services, causing children to be placed in foster care and/or delaying family reunification when children are already in foster care.

(a) ACS should advocate with DHS regarding shelter eligibility issues
BDS wrote extensively on this issue for the March 17, 2015 hearing. Please see specific policy recommendations and client stories on areas for improved coordination between ACS and DHS in our testimony available here: http://bds.org/testimony-before-new-york-city-council-on-acs-dhs-preliminary-fy2016-budget/.

(b) Housing Subsidies
ACS offers a housing subsidy for certain families, but it is currently available only in a very few cases, and is woefully inadequate to meet the realistic needs of the families we all serve.  The state-funded housing subsidy of $300 per month for families with active foster care or preventive cases is not enough to enable families to actually find affordable apartments in New York City.  City Council recently recognized the need for increased housing subsidies in passing Resolution 1073-2016, a resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign legislation that would increase the amount of housing subsidy from $300 to $600 per month, and extend the age eligibility from 21 to 24 for youth who have aged out of foster care.

In our experience, preventive services workers and even ACS workers are generally unaware that the subsidy exists, and those who are aware of it explain that it is not a useful tool for keeping children out of foster care.  Even workers who are aware of the existence of the housing subsidy are often unaware that it can be used to provide families with lump sum payments for rental arrears, repairs, and other one-time expenses to help a family obtain or preserve stable housing.  As a result, preventive workers often advise families to enter the shelter system — an intervention that is far more costly and harmful to family stability — instead of assisting them in preserving stable permanent housing. Ultimately, the state could save money by helping people pay rent, rather than paying $3,000 per month for a child in foster care and even higher sums for family stays in emergency shelters, yet they continue to pursue a punitive approach to poverty.

Recommendations: ACS should join forces with the City Council in lobbying the State for an increase in this subsidy to meet families’ needs or should supplement it with City funding. In the interim, ACS should better train its employees about the benefits of the subsidy.

(4) Identify High-Quality Services For Parents And Caregivers With Developmental Disabilities And Mental Illness
Another critical area that the City should be looking at is providing and improving services to parents and caregivers with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities and mental health issues.  We are concerned about the number of clients we see where the only allegation against them in an Article 10 case is their cognitive delays or mental illness; these cases represent a failure of the system. The National Council on Disability reports that removal rates where parents have a psychiatric disability have been found to be as high as 70 percent to 80 percent; and where the parent has an intellectual disability, 40 percent to 80 percent nationwide.[25] Many parents struggling with these issues end up in the child welfare system because there are little to no resources available to assess and appropriately evaluate parenting capacity, and no resources to support parents to keep their children in the home.

ACS should not be filing neglect cases against these families but should instead be working with the appropriate City and State agencies to ensure that they get the ongoing support and services that they need. Very often the families have received inadequate and insufficient evaluations. Although these families can function independently with ongoing supportive services, the services that child protection currently offers these families, such as short-term preventive services, are inadequate and inappropriate to meet these families’ needs. In a letter dated January 29, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 193 by denying a mother with developmental disabilities opportunities to benefit from support and services to achieve reunification.   Among other issues, the DOJ found that DCF failed to provide appropriate policies and training for social workers to understand their obligation to ensure the civil rights of parents with disabilities.[26]  New York City’s child welfare system faces many of the same deficiencies.

Recommendation: Where a parent presents to ACS with a possible intellectual disability or mental illness, ACS should assess whether the parent is receiving or eligible to receive any supportive services related to the perceived disability, coordinate the referral and evaluation process for the parent to receive appropriate services, and provide transitional services to the parent until those disability-related services are put in place. The process of applying for state assistance through OPWDD can be difficult to navigate, and ACS should be familiar with this application process and assist parents with establishing their eligibility.  ACS staff should be trained in reasonable accommodations that people with intellectual disabilities may need, such as more time allotted for case conferences and casework contacts, more specific assistance with traveling to appointments and time management, and specific services and classes that are tailored to the needs parents in this population.  ACS staff should also be trained in how to approach and talk to parents with a perceived disability, so as not to alienate parents.  In one of our cases where our client has a developmental delay, the case worker approached her in a very threatening manner, telling her that she was going to take her child.  This caused our client to be fearful and flee, resulting in worse outcomes for the family.   Had the worker approached her with sensitivity and offering assistance, the outcome likely would have been different.

(5) The City Should Provide Funding For Parents And Caregivers To Have Legal Representation At Child Safety Conferences
As court-based advocates, we often meet our clients after they have already been in contact with city agencies for months, or even years.  They have often already been interviewed by case workers and detectives, evaluated by mental health professionals, and given numerous directions to show up at conferences, meetings, or other events, with little understanding of the context or consequences.  In our experience, once these families enter the court system and parents are assigned attorneys, we are often able to smooth out misunderstandings, provide our clients with advice on how to better navigate systems, and connect them to services tailored to their needs.  By the time a family is coming to Court, however, it is often too late to avert the placement of a child into foster care or the separation of families.  If parents were provided with independent advice and counsel earlier in the process, it could help to avert some of these family separations, and likely would avert many filings, thereby saving court time and resources and ensuring that cases that needed to come before judges moved more quickly and received more attention.

Child Safety Conferences (CSC’s) are an important mechanism used by ACS during a child welfare investigation to determine child safety when ACS is considering filing a petition in court.  At the conference, which is supposed to include the family, a safety plan is developed, including recommendations for services, and a determination is made as to whether a case will be filed in court and whether foster care placement will be recommended. In some cases children have already been removed or children are removed at the conference.  At the CSC, a parent or caregiver is often in the middle of a crisis, terrified that she will lose her children, and unaware of her rights and responsibilities during a child welfare investigation.  Too often a critical opportunity to engage a family and conduct an appropriate needs’ assessment is lost and the relationship between a parent and the agency breaks down.

CSCs would be more successful and traumatic removals of children would be avoided, if parents were advised of their rights and responsibilities by a parent advocate or social worker who is associated with an attorney at this early stage.  Presently, no legal organization is contracted to provide parents with representation at CSCs and before a case is filed in court.  Parents are assigned a lawyer only once an abuse or neglect case is filed in Family Court.  Parents receive legal counsel only after the CSC and often after their children have been placed in foster care.  Once an attorney is assigned, an appropriate safety plan can be developed allowing the children to remain safely at home.  Institutional providers also have success averting removals at CSC’s where children are under Court-Ordered Supervision.  We believe the success we have achieved can be replicated with pre-petition advocacy.

Although not funded by the City, family defense providers have been able to provide some families with a small amount of pre-petition advocacy with good results for families.  The Center for Family Representation (CFR) achieved positive outcomes for families when it provided representation to parents and caregivers in CSCs (then called PDMs) through Project Engage and their work is discussed in their testimony submitted today.  In addition, through its Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies program funded by a small grant, as well as its hotline and community intake services, BXD has provided pre-petition advocacy to parents and caregivers during a child welfare investigation and at a CSC.  The results show the promise of this approach. In FY 2015, BXD provided targeted social worker support and advocacy to 197 pregnant mothers who had older children in foster care.  Fifty of those women gave birth to babies who were at great risk of joining their siblings in foster care.  Once they were born, a CSC was convened and an advocate from BXD attended.  BXD collaborated with the foster care agency overseeing the older children and ensured that all of the women enrolled in HMHB were referred to prenatal care and evidence-based services including mother-child dyadic therapy, and substance abuse or mental health services if necessary.  BXD also provided assistance with housing and public assistance to further stabilize the lives of the expectant mothers.  Of the 50 births to the women engaged with HMHB, 66% were never removed from their mother’s care, 20% were removed but placed with their father or another relative identified by HMHB, and only 7% were placed in non-kinship care.   These results demonstrate that pre-petition advocacy saves families from the trauma of separation and reduces legal costs and foster care placements.

In 2015, The Bronx Defenders social work staff provided pre-filing advocacy to 183 clients.  BXD’s advocacy helped preserve families and avoid the trauma of unnecessary family disruption for hundreds of children. Because of the information provided by advocates during child welfare investigations in 183 cases, 142 of these cases resulted in connecting families with preventive service providers, such as drug treatment, mental health services, homemakers, visiting nurses or daycare facilities, to help parents address the needs that exist.  Moreover, children in 157 families were not placed in foster care.

Recommendation: The City should consider funding pre-petition advocacy in all five boroughs based on the results and lessons learned from small pilot projects conducted by CFR and BXD and the participation at CSC’s of all the parent representation providers.

(6) Assess And Address The Continuing Problem Of Racial Disproportionality In New York City’s Child Welfare System
New York City’s child welfare system is almost exclusively a system for families of color, as discussed previously. In the past nine years that our organizations have been representing parents in Article 10 cases, racial disparities have remained static. As in the criminal justice system, racially biased enforcement of the Family Court Act breeds distrust for child protective services agencies in poor neighborhoods of color. A woman named Jameelah with a child welfare case in New Jersey explains,  “You’ll see a Caucasian person in a supermarket and let’s say their children don’t have on a hat or shoes and its cold outside. Let that happen to an African American. Before you know it they’re reading your license plate and, boom, you have a social worker knocking at your door.”[27] Our clients in Brooklyn and the Bronx express similar sentiments to our attorneys and social workers regularly. Troubling racial disparities should cause ACS to remove children from their homes with more caution, not less.

Recommendation: If ACS is truly committed to diminishing and eventually eliminating racial disparities, removals should only be on the table in the most extreme cases. Otherwise, the communities that we serve will continue to view ACS as racially biased.

(7) Do Not Implement Predictive Analytics In New York City’s Child Welfare System.
Over the last year, governments and child welfare agencies across the country have begun to consider the utility of predictive analytics in the child welfare context. We strongly urge ACS and the Council not to pursue this avenue. As we have seen in the criminal justice context, risk assessment instruments are plagued by biases that reflect the prejudices or beliefs of whoever created or scored the instrument. ProPublica looked at one of the most widely used risk-assessment programs and how it fared in Broward County, Fla.[28] Researchers found that the risk assessment instrument was only accurate about 61 percent of the time, and that it treated blacks and whites differently. Black defendants were twice as likely to be rated as “high risk” incorrectly, meaning they did not go on to reoffend.  Meanwhile white defendants were twice as likely to be incorrectly rated as low risk and yet go on to reoffend.

Similar biases would be built into any child welfare analytics and exacerbate the severe racial disparities that exist already. We oppose any use of predictive analytics which substitutes stereotypes, bias and presumptions for the type of comprehensive case-by-case, fact specific assessments that families need and deserve, including an assessment of family strengths and progress in their lives.

Recommendation: Given the previously-discussed stark disproportionality we already see in the system, we implore ACS not to employ this untested tool and unwittingly embed racial disparity deeper into this system’s functioning.

(8) Stop the Criminalization of Poverty
Every day, our criminal defense practices serve low-income New Yorkers who are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated because of their economic condition, with clear adverse impacts on the ability of affected individuals to care for their children. Arrests and prosecutions for poverty-based offenses such as fare evasion separate parents from their children every day. To our knowledge, the City does not track the number. However, we do know from the Osborne Association that 105,000 children in New York State have a parent incarcerated in prison or jail, and that this separation can have devastating consequences on the children. In this way, our City’s and State’s criminal justice policies and priorities are in direct contravention of the City’s other efforts toward preserving strong, healthy families.

Our clients spend countless hours in court, and, in many cases, far longer stretches in jail or prison. They suffer diminished work, education, and housing opportunities due to publicly-accessible criminal records. Many experience severe trauma, especially those who are incarcerated in New York’s notoriously abusive prisons and jails, which only compounds the intergenerational cycles of trauma that are at the root of the most serious child welfare proceedings.

Recommendation: The City should track the number of parents in NYC Department of Correction facilities and work with criminal court system stakeholders like BDS and BXD to ensure that pre-trial detention and incarceration sentences are rarely used in cases involving parents or caregivers.

(9) Make ACS More Accountable To The Communities It Serves
Another important way to improve the child welfare system is to make ACS more accountable to the communities it serves. Stakeholders, including parents and parent attorneys, should be directly involved whenever ACS develops and implements large scale policy changes or practice mandates, such as those that are being considered today.   Polices and changes should be made and implemented after thoughtful consideration and in collaboration with stakeholders.

Lastly, we address the recent DOI report and respond to the assessments and recommendations laid out there.

The May 2016 DOI Report
In May 2016, the NYC Department of Investigation issued a report and recommendations based on a review of three cases with ACS involvement where there was either a fatality or near fatality.  The evaluation of the individual cases appears to be based on a review of records in the three cases and interviews with professionals involved. We question the validity of system-wide recommendations based on only three cases out of thousands and without talking to all of the parties involved including, in one case, BDS who represented one of the parents.  In that case, which involved a child who died “under suspicious circumstances, ” the report fails to mention that the child was living in a City shelter and the conditions of the shelter are likely to be blamed for the child’s death.  We question why this case involving an accidental death of a child is even included in the DOI report. The report is also filled with subjective interpretations of facts which should not be the basis for systemic changes.

The report criticizes ACS for the lack of documentation and timing of supervisory reviews. While intensive supervision of CPS workers is absolutely crucial to the quality of casework practice, the focus of any evaluation should be on the substance and quality of decision-making, not on adherence to documentation and time frame rules.

We are also concerned about the recommendations suggesting taking appropriate disciplinary actions against staff. While disciplinary action for violating rules, such as falsification of records, may be warranted in some cases, we are concerned about this reaction to tragedies (such as in the recent case of Zymere Perkins) because it scapegoats individual caseworkers for systemic problems, and encourages the overreliance on filing cases and removing children because workers and supervisors are afraid. As noted above, removals into foster care and out of the home harm children and families and should never be the go-to response to tragedy.

The report also finds that ACS failed to adequately oversee its foster care agency providers. While we understand ACS’s monitoring role of foster care agencies and how important it is for ACS to ensure that agencies are complying with ACS policies and regulations and with the law, such as providing reasonable efforts for reunification and ensuring timely reunification, it is important to recognize that the case planners at the foster care agencies are the workers who are the most familiar with what is happening with a family on a day-to-day basis.  As such, case planners are often in the best position to make decisions about the family.  Increased monitoring of agencies should not result in more barriers to family reunification when that is in the children’s best interests.  We agree with ACS that DOI should not be the body that ACS reports to regarding improved oversight and appreciate the opportunity ACS has given the public recently to comment on its proposed Integrated Family Team Conference Policy. We hope that community stakeholders will be involved in ongoing implementation and review of the policy as our clients experience the impact of these policies on a day-to-day basis.

In addition, the report raises the issue of whether foster care agencies are timely filing petitions to terminate parental rights and argues that there are many children in foster care where petitions should have been filed where exceptions to filing are not documented.  Based on our experience in the field, we are confident that these cases generally do meet the required exceptions, including that the children are in kinship placements.  However, it is possible that these exceptions are just not clearly documented at service plan reviews and we agree that they should be documented.  Finally, the report recommends collecting and sharing additional data points with DOI.  We would request that stakeholders be involved in determining the data points and that the information be shared widely.

Our proposals would not only strengthen the system in these key areas, ensuring that children are able to remain with their families in safe, secure and stable environments, but would also help enable the child welfare system to leverage available resources in the most cost-effective and impactful ways possible. We believe that following these suggestions will result in more stable families with access to the resources they need.

Once again, we are grateful to the Council for your attention to this important issue. Please do not hesitate to reach out to Lauren Shapiro at lshapiro@bds.org or (917) 204-2568 or Emma Ketteringham at emmak@bronxdefenders.org or (718) 508-3468 with any questions.

[1] New York City, Keeping Track Online: The Status of New York City Children (2013), available at http://data.cccnewyork.org/profile/location/1/city#1/new-york-city/1/1193,1194/a/a.

[2] Martin Guggenheim, Representing Parents In Child Welfare Cases: Advice and Guidance for Family Defenders, ed. Martin Guggenheim & Vivek S. Sankaran, 17 (2016).

[3] John Eckenrode et al, Income Inequality and Child Maltreatment in the United States, 133 Pediatrics 454 (2014), available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/133/3/454.

[4] H. Roger Segelken, Child abuse and neglect rise with income inequality, Cornell Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2014 available at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/02/child-abuse-and-neglect-rise-income-inequality.

[5] Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare , 27(2003) (noting that “[p]overty—not the type or severity of maltreatment—is the single most important predictor of placement in foster care and the amount of time spent there.);  Leroy H. Pelton, The Continuing Role of Material Factors in Child Maltreatment and Placement, 41 Child Abuse & Neglect 30 (2014) (noting that “[c]hildren in foster care have been and continue to be placed there from predominantly impoverished families.”); Mark E. Courtney, The Costs of Child Protection in the Context of Welfare Reform, 8 The Future of Children 88, 95 (1998).

[6] Dorothy Roberts, Child Welfare and Civil Rights, 2013 U. Ill. L. Rev. 171, 172-73 (2003) (quoting Admin. for Children & Families, U.S, Dept. of Health and Human Servs., Child Maltreatment 1992: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, Executive Summary, Finding 4, at 3 (2000)).

[7] Tina Lee, Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System, 5-6 (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016).

[8] See Roxana Saberi & Lisa Semel, In NY, black families more likely to be split by the foster care system, Al-Jazeera America, June 25, 2015, available at http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/25/new-york-foster-care-system-racial-disparity.html (citing ACS data).

[9] Reva I. Allen, Alex Westerfelt, Irving Piliavin, & Thomas Porky McDonald, Assessing the Long Term Effects of Foster Care: A Research Synthesis (Child Welfare League of America, 1997), cited in Allon Yaroni, Ryan Shanahan, Randi Rosenblum, & Timothy Ross, Innovations in NC Health and Human Services Policy: Child Welfare Policy, VERA Institute of Justice Policy Briefs, Jan. 2014, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/ceo/downloads/pdf/policybriefs/child-welfare-brief.pdf.

[10] Rethinking Foster Care: Molly McGrath Tierney at TEDxBaltimore 2014, available at http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Rethinking-Foster-Care-Molly-Mc.

[11] Children in foster care in Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Texas were prescribed psychotropic medications 2.7 to 4.5 times more often than children who were not in foster care. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off.,GAO-12-8201, Foster Children HHS Guidance Could Help States Improve Oversight of Psychotropic Prescriptions 8 (2011).

[12] Richard Wexler, Take the Child and Run: Tales From the Age of ASFA, 36 New England L. Rev 129, 137 (2002).

[13] Compl. at 59-60, Eliza W. v. City of N.Y., No. 1:15-CV-05273-LTS-HBP, available at http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/sites/advocate.nyc.gov/files/amended_complaint_12.28.2015.pdf (“Based on the most recent federal data available, New York State ranks 46th out of 48 states and territories for instances of substantiated or indicated maltreatment of children while in foster care. Put simply, children in New York are more likely to be harmed while under the state’s protection than children in virtually every other state.”)

[14] Joseph J. Doyle, Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care, 97 Am. Econ. Rev. 1583, 1584 (2007) [hereinafter “Doyle 2007”].

[15] See Patrick J. Fowler et al., Pathways to and From Homelessness and Associated Psychosocial Outcomes Among Adolescents Leaving the Foster Care System, 99 Am. J. of Pub. Health 1453 (2009).

[16] See Doyle 2008, supra note 14.

[17] Id. at 766-67.

[18] David Rubin et al., The Impact of Kinship Care on Behavioral Well-being for Children in Out-of-Home Care, 162 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Med. 550, 552-53 (2008).

[19] Marc Winokur et al., Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment, Campbell Systematic Reviews 4 (2009).

[20] Winokur, supra note 19.

[21] Flash: October 2016, NYC Admin. for Children’s Servs., available at http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/2016/Flashindicators.pdf .

[22] See Testimony from the National Association of Social Workers, Washington Chapter before the Committee on Human Services and Corrections (2013), available at http://nasw-wa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Testimony-SB-5163-CPS-Workers-2013.pdf.

[23] Testimony from the National Association of Social Workers, Washington Chapter, supra note 24 (citing Surjit Singh Dhooper, David D. Royse, & L.C. Wolfe Does Social Work Make A Difference?, 35 Social Work 57-61 (1990); Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, The Maryland social work services job analysis and personnel qualifications study. Report prepared for the Department of Human Resources, State of Maryland,(1987); U.S. General Accounting Office, Child Welfare: HHS could play a greater role in helping child welfare agencies recruit and retain staff (2003)).

[24] Data has shown that median household income has not kept up with median rent in New York City. This is particularly true in some of the City’s struggling neighborhoods. For example, in University Heights in the Bronx, median monthly rent increased 14.3% from 2005 to 2014, while median income decreased 12%. See, e.g., New York City Rent Guidelines Board, 2016 Income and Affordability Study, April 17, 2016, available at http://www.nycrgb.org/downloads/research/pdf_reports/ia16.pdf.

[25] National Council on Disability, Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children (2012), available at http://www.ncd.gov/sites/default/files/Documents/NCD_Parenting_508_0.pdf.

[26] Joint Letter from U.S. Dep’t of Justice: Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services: Office for Civil Rights, Investigation of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families by the United States Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act (DJ No. 204-36-216 and HHS No. 14-182176), Jan. 29, 2015, available at https://www.ada.gov/ma_docf_lof.pdf.

[27] Sarah Gonzalez, Black Mothers Judged Unfit at Higher Rate than White Mothers in NJ, WNYC, May 26, 2015, available at http://www.wnyc.org/story/black-parents-nj-lose-custody-their-kids-more-anyone-else/.

[28] Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu and Lauren Kirchner, Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks, ProPublica, May 23, 2016, available at https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing.




 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.



Kaela Economos

Social Work Supervisor, Family Defense Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on General Welfare

Oversight Hearing on

Preventive Services at the Administration for Children’s Services

 December 14, 2016

My name is Kaela Economos and I am a Social Work Supervisor in the Family Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS).  BDS is a public defender organization that provides inter-disciplinary, holistic, client-centered representation in the areas of criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, for tens of thousands of clients every year. The BDS Family Defense practice represents almost 2,000 respondents in child welfare cases every year and has helped thousands of children remain safely at home with their families or leave foster care and safely reunite with their families.  Our attorneys, social workers and parent advocates are in the field every day interacting directly with the Administration for Children’s Services and foster care agency workers.

We thank the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare and, in particular, Chair Stephen Levin, for the opportunity to testify today. I will address both the quality and effectiveness of preventive services available to low income communities in New York City and offer BDS’s support for Resolution 1322 and Introductions 1062 and 1374, along with our reactions and recommendations to the bills.

BDS’s family defense practice regularly interfaces with preventive service programs in three situations: (1) when ACS files a neglect petition against a parent whose family is already receiving voluntary preventive services because the agency believes that those services are not adequately addressing safety concerns in the home; (2) when preventive services are required by the Family Court in the context of neglect cases in order to keep children home with their families instead of being removed; and (3) when preventive services are required by the Family Court in order for children to return home to their families.

BDS strongly supports funding preventive services robustly for the intended purpose of these programs, which is to prevent the need for children to be placed in foster care and to reduce the time children spend in care.  In large measure, preventive service programs have been effective in helping to reduce the foster care population which has been reduced from almost 40,000 in 1999 to fewer than 10,000 children in foster care in New York City today.[1]  Keeping families together or reuniting families with services in place instead of placing children in foster care prevents the harm and trauma of removing children from their families and the harm and poor outcomes that children in foster care face.[2]  This also conserves limited social services resources and reduces the burden to taxpayers.

The goal of preventive services is to connect families with services and benefits so that ACS involvement is unnecessary to keep children safe. Ideally, preventive services would give agencies the ability to connect with the community in meaningful ways so that families could turn to them before ACS becomes involved in a crisis. If families could identify preventive services as a supportive option in their communities when they are having problems, much of ACS involvement could be avoided. Instead, ACS mandates preventive services after problems are identified which becomes another intrusive and invasive system in our clients’ lives which breeds suspicion and undermines the potential for meaningful and beneficial relationships.

Preventive services are most successful when they remain voluntary and are community based. The most effective preventive agencies are ones that have deep roots in the neighborhood they serve and have an established track record with the community. This results in communities and neighbors trusting them, which enables families to seek and receive help before anything rises to ACS involvement or mandated services. For example, our Mandarin-speaking families report the greatest satisfaction in cases involving Mandarin-speaking preventive service workers and organizations. When our clients feel like the preventive service agency understands them and their community, and is working with them, and not against them, our clients are more successful in achieving goals for their families.

Preventive service programs can and should be delivered more effectively to help families provide safe and stable homes for their children and to reduce the number of children who enter foster care. In our experience, monitoring requirements placed upon preventive services agencies;  formulaic service planning that does not take into account the complex needs of at risk families;  and delays in assigning preventive services to families in need all have contributed to reducing the effectiveness and availability of preventive service programs.  BDS testified extensively on these points during the preliminary budget hearing before this Committee in March 2015 and offered specific recommendations for ameliorating each of these concerns. A copy of our testimony is available online at http://bds.org/wp-content/uploads/3.17.15-NYC-Council-Committee-on-General-Welfare-Testimony.pdf.

My testimony today revisits some of these issues with new case examples. Suffice to say that the issues we reported on in 2015 have not yet been resolved. Indeed, ACS’ reaction to the recent tragic death of Zymere Perkins has been to remove even more children from their homes. These are the highest numbers of filings and removals that we have seen in all of our nine years of representing indigent parents in Family Court.

Delays in Assigning Preventive Services to Families in Need
As we noted in our March 2015 testimony, the lag between preventive services need identification and service provision often spans months. In some cases, this gap between identification and provision results in ACS seeking to remove children from their families unnecessarily. For example, in one case alleging inadequate housing conditions and leaving an 11-year old alone with younger children, ACS made a removal application where there had been a prior agreement to arrange preventive services that were not put in place in a timely manner. Because the delays in arranging preventive services are well-known in Family Court, judges are often reluctant to return children to their families, regardless of whether there is a plan that preventive services will quickly respond to the families’ service needs, leading to children staying in foster care for longer than necessary. Since only ACS is authorized to make the referral in cases where the judge mandates preventive services (non-voluntary cases), often our clients have no way to access services until ACS puts them in contact with the preventive services agencies.

In July 2015 ACS removed three-month-old twins from the care of their father, a BDS client, without a court order and placed them at the ACS Children’s Center.  The reason ACS gave for the removal was that our client had left the babies in the care of their mother who was not supposed to be alone with the children.  The Family Court held a hearing at which the ACS worker testified that she had requested preventive services for the family months earlier but they had yet to be assigned to an agency.  She admitted that our client had requested assistance with housing and childcare which she never provided.  He was forced to enter the shelter system with his children, and the shelter rules prohibited him from leaving the children with anyone other than their mother while he went to work in the evenings.  The hearing lasted six days, during which time the babies remained at the Children’s Center.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the Family Court denied ACS’ application to remove the babies and returned them to their father’s care.

More than a year later, we see that our clients still suffer significant delays in receiving necessary preventive services.  In late October BDS picked up a case involving a client whose children were released to her with court-ordered supervision. ACS spoke about providing the family with preventive services and our client kept following up with CPS as to status of the preventive services and whether or not ACS sent in a request, but ACS had not done so. At this point, our client decided to get the ball rolling and enrolled one of her sons to receive counseling due to behavior issues and her other son to get an appointment for early intervention, all on her own. Our client returned to court in December and her attorney informed the court about the delay in the preventive services. ACS stated that they only put in the request for services at the end of November, a full month after the first court date. Upon hearing this, the CPS supervisor reported that the family would be transferred to a Family Support Unit (FSU) worker. FSU workers are similar to preventive services workers, but in-house for ACS. FSU workers are often assigned to families after the CPS investigation where there is no foster care involvement but there is still court-ordered supervision of the family.

Recommendation: Preventive workers should be immediately assigned in all cases where families indicate they are willing to participate in preventive services. Worker performance should be assessed on the time between identification of family needs and the provision of services.

Overuse of Preventive Services Causes Backlogs
One major concern is that we often see ACS ask judges in Family Court to mandate preventive services, often without an articulable reason as to why the family needs services or how these specific services can benefit the family when ACS is already supervising the home and/or the parent is receiving other services such as counseling. When ACS asks for unnecessary services, this clogs up the pipeline and makes it even more difficult for families who do want and would benefit from specific services to get the help that they want and need.

As any social service provider will tell you, and social science research confirms, that people are best served when they are able to receive voluntary services narrowly tailored to their needs.[3] Anything beyond this scope often results in worse outcomes for the intended recipient, and greater costs for the system as a whole.

Recommendation: In Family Court, ACS should be required to articulate a reason for preventive services if they are requesting them with the goal of limiting the number of families who receive preventive services to only those who really need them.

Concern about the newly required Preventive Service Termination Meetings
We are concerned that the newly required Preventive Service Termination meetings that are outlined in ACS’s draft Integrated Family Team Conference Protocol that was issued on October 24, 2016 will have unintended negative consequences for families seeking preventive services whether voluntary or mandated. Not only do these new conferences increase the number of meetings the family must attend, they may result in unnecessary delays in the provision of preventive services, especially for homeless families or families with unstable housing.

Recently, we worked with a client who had preventive services in place for her family. The family was then transferred to a different shelter that was outside the catchment area of the assigned preventive service agency. Preventive services could not continue until the family was referred to a new provider in the new catchment areas, but a new referral could not be made until the former provider was able to close out their services with the family. Working under the new IOC conference protocol, this could not happen until there was a termination conference. There were delays in scheduling the service termination conference, including the lack of an available ACS facilitator. Instead of a seamless transition to new preventive services, the delay of the termination meeting, coupled with the long time frame for the preventive service planning conferences, resulted in several weeks of the family not getting any preventive services through no fault of their own.

Recommendation: ACS should reconsider the protocol around preventive service conferences to make service provision more seamless and to allow for a different process for families who are participating in preventive services. At a minimum, a conference should not be held if a family is terminating services due to a change in catchment area.

Concern about the Expiration Date on Mandated Preventive Services
Many of the evidence-based preventive services programs have strict time limits for how long the cases can remain open and it is very difficult to keep the cases open longer.  Time limits mandating the termination of services create a revolving door in the child welfare system. Families must stop services, not because they have completed their goals but because their time is up. Inevitably they return to services because the issues that led to ACS involvement in the first place have not been resolved.  The time limits also undermine the potential for meaningful relationships. Many of these families have had numerous negative interactions with the system and building trust is already difficult so these timeframes are just too short to do any long-lasting substantive work.

Recommendation: ACS should work with families to ensure they receive the voluntary services that they need, as long as they want and need them. However, mandated services should not be extended involuntarily to allow ACS constant intrusion in our clients’ lives.

Resolution No. 1322- Resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to develop a parents’ bill of rights to be distributed at initial home visits in child protective investigations and made available online

BDS strongly supports this bill. Connecticut passed a similar bill in 2011 and the Department of Children and Families now shares the bill of rights on their brochures and materials that they give to families. The Connecticut bill already serves as a successful model for implementation in New York. We would similarly urge that the New York State legislature work with organizations like ours that represent parents in Article 10 proceedings to ensure successful rollout of the bill.

Introduction 1062 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring the administration for children’s services to provide language classes to certain children in foster care

BDS strongly supports this bill without comments or recommendations.

Introduction 1374 – A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the utilization of preventive services

BDS strongly supports this bill to require reporting on the utilization of preventive services. However, we raise the following issues to the Council’s attention:

(1) We are concerned that the burden of reporting will fall on the preventive agencies to track and provide this data to ACS.
Preventive service agencies already are understaffed and loaded up with paperwork. We raise this issue in hopes that the Council will try to work with the agencies to ensure that the new reporting bill does not further limit the agencies’ ability to serve New York’s most vulnerable communities.

(2) ACS should be required to report on how many cases are voluntary versus mandated.
Preventive services are most successful when they remain voluntary and are community based. Data collection about voluntary versus mandated services would allow policymakers to assess which preventive programs have the most voluntary clients and whether incidences of ACS involvement are lower in those communities. We could also then assess how many clients avoid court when a preventive program is already involved or initiated early in the investigation.

(3) ACS should also track and report on data on the length of time between (1) when the court orders services, (2) the ACS referral to assignment of an agency, and (3) actual provision of services.
This recommendation seeks to gather data about the bureaucratic delays we discussed above.

(4) ACS should track and report on data specifically broken down by preventive service catchment areas, not just on preventive program types and slots.
This amendment will allow policymakers to see where preventive services are most utilized, where there may be waitlists for services, where there may be under-utilization and will help policymakers to determine sensible preventive service resource allocation.

(5) ACS should report how many families are receiving each of the services listed in 18 NYCRR 423.4(d)(1).
New York law requires that families receiving preventive services to prevent foster care placement have access to day care; homemaker services; parent training or parent aide; transportation; clinical services; respite care and services for families with HIV; emergency services, including cash or the equivalent thereto, goods and shelter; and the ACS Housing subsidy. Int. 1374 should be amended to ensure that ACS reports on how many families need each of these services and how many receive them.  This data should include not simply whether a family was referred to another agency to receive these services, but also whether the services were in fact provided and if not, what advocacy was done by the preventive agency to ensure service provision.

New York City’s progress in dramatically reducing the number of children in foster care over the past ten years has been possible through the increased availability of preventive services to families in need of support, earlier identification of such families, and greater accountability within the Family Court Systems to ensuring that appropriate service plans are put in place.  These trends must be applauded and not rolled back in response to recent child deaths.  We are grateful to the Council for your attention to preventive services and for offering legislation that seeks to shed light on how these services support families in need and limit the need for removal to the foster care system. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me at keconomos@bds.org or (347) 592-2554 with any questions.

[1] Center for New York City Affairs, The New School, Watching the Numbers:  A Six-Year Statistical Survey Monitoring New York City’s Child Welfare System (November 2016), available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53ee4f0be4b015b9c3690d84/t/5849a22f725e254385d753eb/1481220657883/FINAL_Watching+the+Numbers_2016.pdf.

[2] In our testimony submitted to this Committee in October, we noted that although most foster parents are well intentioned and provide a safe environment, there is overwhelming evidence of the negative outcomes of foster care placements.  Children placed in foster care are more likely to experience psychopathology than children who are not in foster care, with children in foster care being between 2.7 and 4.5 times more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medication than children not in foster care, according to one study.  Studies have found that rates of safety are actually worse for children in foster care than for those in family preservation programs.   For example, one study shows that children are actually twice as likely to die of abuse in foster care. New York State ranks the third worst for rates of substantiated or indicated reports of maltreatment of children in foster care.  Even these statistics are likely underestimations, as “abuse or neglect by foster parents is not investigated because agencies tolerate behavior from foster parents which would be unacceptable by birth parents.” Children who are on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home as opposed to being placed in out-of-home care. In one study, a researcher looked at case records for more than 15,000 children, segregating the in-between cases where a real problem existed in the home, but the decision to remove could go either way. Despite the fact that the children who remained home did not get extraordinary help, on measure after measure the children left in their own homes fared better than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. All of this evidence demonstrates that keeping children together with their parents, even within homes that are not ideal, is usually preferable to foster care placement. See Testimony of Brooklyn Defender Service and The Bronx Defenders before the NYC Council Committee on General Welfare October 31, 2016, pp. 5-6 (internal citations omitted).

[3] See, e.g., National Quality Improvement Center, Differential Response in Child Protective Services:  A Legal Analysis (Sept. 2009), available at http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/departments/pediatrics/subs/can/DR/qicdr/General%20Resources/General%20Resources/docs/differential-response-in.pdf.



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.



Photo credit: Júbilo Haku (via Flickr)

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



Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of Silicon Valley De-Bug. He is a co-founder of participatory defense, and trains communities nationally on the approach.

Last week, BDS hosted organizers from Silicon Valley De-Bug and heads of the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Public Defender’s office. They discussed ways in which the family of someone charged with a crime and their community can help defense attorneys with potentially useful information that might otherwise fly under the radar.



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.



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.


Clarence Threlkeld – Client
The New York City Council Committees on Courts & Legal Services and Immigration
Oversight Hearing Evaluating Attorney Compliances with Padilla v. Kentucky and Court Obstacles for Immigrants in Criminal and Summons Courts

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Clarence Threlkeld. My lawyer, Ms. Jessica Rofé from Brooklyn Defender Services, asked me if I would share my story with you today. I want to tell you about the confusion, sadness and hardship that my family and I experienced after Immigration authorities arrested me in the hallway of Brooklyn Criminal Court. First, let me tell you about me. I was born in Colón, Panama in 1965. My mother is Panamanian. My father was an African-American serviceman stationed at Fort Davis in the Canal Zone. He was a U.S. citizen. After I was born, my father was transferred away from the Canal Zone to another post. There were some difficulties with paperwork and my mother was never able to join my father in the United States. Eventually my parents’ relationship ended because they were separated.

Around 1982, my mother moved to the United States to reunite with her father and stepmother, and to give her five children a better life. When my mother left Panama, I missed her a lot. So she applied for my green card so I could join her. In 1983, when I was about 18 years old, I, too, moved to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Here, in New York, I worked as a refrigerator and air conditioning repairman, as well as in construction. I also became father to five children of my own. My youngest daughter, Elizabeth, is only two years old. Elizabeth, her mother, Antoinette, and I live together in uptown Manhattan.

In the Spring of 2014, I was arrested in Brooklyn on Misdemeanor charges. On April 30, 2014, I went to Brooklyn Criminal Court for my second court appearance. Before court, my lawyer told me that her colleague was going to be there to stand on my case, because she was tied up on another matter. As I was walking down the hallway to enter the courtroom, I heard my name called, and assumed that it was the lawyer who would stand on my case that morning. Instead, it was two men in plain clothes. They stopped me and told me they had a warrant for my arrest. I asked them what the warrant was for, and they said it was an immigration warrant. The two men took me to downtown Manhattan, first to 26 Federal Plaza and then to Varick Street. While I was at these facilities, I was scared and I felt really bad. I even cried – tears came out. The officers were asking me questions, and I couldn’t even talk because of the way I felt. They told me they had a warrant for my arrest, they processed some paperwork, and then took me to Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey. I was detained in New Jersey for almost six months. I thought I was going to be deported back to Panama, where I don’t really have a lot of family. I thought I wasn’t going to see my kids anymore. I was really depressed.

I appeared before an Immigration Judge three times without a lawyer while I was detained. Immigration officials said I was deportable based on misdemeanor convictions. I told the judge that my father was a United States citizen in the hope that maybe I would be spared from deportation. I thought maybe that made me a citizen too. However, it was really difficult to fight my case alone and from detention. Eventually, in the middle of October, after over five months in detention, Ms. Jessica Rofé became my lawyer through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. The lawyer told Immigration officers that I had a citizenship claim through my father, and that I should never have been placed in detention. Three days later, I was released. The court and immigration listened to my lawyer because she could tell them about my father in a way I couldn’t from jail. In September 2015 I won my immigration case. My case has been terminated with prejudice. In early October, I applied for a U.S. passport.

My courthouse arrest highlights many problems with immigration enforcement in New York City. First, Immigration officers arrested me before I could appear before the criminal judge. That judge ordered a bench warrant because he thought I hadn’t shown up to court. Second, Immigration officers did not even take into consideration the evidence of my U.S. citizenship that was in my file before they decided to arrest me. And they continued to keep me in jail even after I told the judge I could be a citizen in June of 2014. Lastly, my arrest and the nearly six months I spent in immigration jail created chaos, confusion and sadness for me and my family. My mother put hundreds of dollars on my commissary while I was in detention so that I could make phone calls to my family and purchase clothing to stay warm. My mother visited me a few times and she brought Elizabeth with her once. However, I spent months without seeing my children.

I hope that the City Council considers making New York City courts a safe space for immigrants. I don’t think that people should be scared to appear for an open case before a judge.

An immigration arrest like the one I experienced creates problems in a person’s criminal case. It interrupts the court process. In addition, sometimes the arrest leads to really unfair consequences, like the nearly six-month I spent in immigration jail.

Thank you all for listening to me today. I hope you consider my story when thinking about the future of immigration enforcement in New York City. Thank you.



From left to right: Hon. Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Toby Golick, Jim Provost, Kim Susser, Marianne Yang, Mohammed Sheriff

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.



 Andrea Sáenz – Supervising Attorney, Immigration Practice



Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Immigration

Oversight Hearing: The Impact of New Immigration

Enforcement Tactics on Access to Justice and Services

March 15, 2017

  1. Introduction

My name is Andrea Sáenz. I am the supervising attorney of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). NYIFUP is New York City’s groundbreaking, first-in-the nation program providing quality counsel to immigrant New Yorkers who are detained and facing deportation and separation from their families and communities. I thank the City Council Committee on Immigration, and in particular Chair Menchaca, for this opportunity to testify about the impact of new immigration enforcement tactics on access to justice and services in New York City

BDS is the largest legal services provider in Brooklyn, representing nearly 40,000 low-income New Yorkers each year who are arrested, charged with abuse or neglect of their children or face deportation. Our immigration practice represents more than 1,000 immigrant New Yorkers every year by advising BDS’s criminal defense attorneys and their noncitizen clients on the immigration consequences of guilty pleas through our Padilla Unit, providing deportation defense through the City Council-funded NYIFUP program, and providing affirmative application assistance for immigrant clients from all of BDS’s practice areas through out Youth and Communities Project. I will speak today about the trends that we are seeing across all three of our Immigration units and how they affect the communities we serve.

  1. In Criminal Court

Inability to counsel non-citizen criminal defense clients on pleas

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky that the Sixth Amendment requires defense counsel to provide affirmative, competent advice to a noncitizen defendant regarding the immigration consequences of a guilty plea.[1] One in four of BDS’s criminal defense clients are not U.S. citizens and, under the president’s new enforcement priorities, they are all now priorities for deportation by virtue of having been arrested.

Trump’s Executive Order upends the prior enforcement priorities for undocumented people and people with legal immigration status alike. It used to be that some immigrants who were convicted of minor crimes were not deemed enforcement priorities.  In addition, non-citizens were not considered priorities just by virtue of having been accused of a crime. After the new executive order, anyone with any criminal history or open charge is a priority, as well as anyone who has committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.

This sows fear and confusion for our immigrant clients. Understandably, our criminal defense clients may see their defense attorneys as agents of the state, impacting our ability to build trusting relationships that allow us to help our clients achieve their own personal goals and the best possible outcome in the case. How can they trust us if we cannot accurately advise them? Indeed, I believe that the current state of affairs endangers our ability to provide effective counsel under the standard articulated in Padilla v. Kentucky. Judges, prosecutors, court-mandated service providers and other players in the court system are likewise confused about how to handle cases involving non-citizens.

NYPD fingerprinting and Broken Windows policy leads ICE directly to our clients

NYPD’s policy is to fingerprint anyone who is arrested, even if only for a low-level offense like fare evasion. Some police armed with tablets are even fingerprinting people in their neighborhoods, without even making an arrest that leads to a trip to the precinct and processing at Central Booking.[2] Fingerprints collected by the NYPD are transmitted to the FBI, who in turn can share them with the Department of Homeland Security, potentially leading to an arrest by ICE and deportation. Even if a district attorney declines to press charges, an immigrant is put at immediate risk of being found by ICE. Broken windows policing, or the criminalization of the most minor offenses, even without a resulting conviction, thus directly sends thousands of immigrants and their fingerprints to the federal government every year.

Over the past three years, the BDS immigration practice has represented dozens of detained clients in deportation proceedings for underlying “crimes” like possession of small amounts of marijuana, turnstile jumping, and possession of “gravity knives” (really work tools carried by laborers, often required by their union contracts, and purchased legally at major retailers like Home Depot).  Many of these clients are legal permanent residents who had been living in the U.S. for dozens of years with these minor convictions on their record before they were swept up by ICE.

Courthouse Arrests

Unlike attorneys in other boroughs, we have not seen an uptick in courthouse arrests by ICE in Kings County in 2017. That being said, courthouse arrests occurred throughout the past presidential administration. Our internal records indicate more than one dozen BDS clients have been arrested in Brooklyn courthouses and taken into ICE custody in the past four years. A BDS client from Guatemala had the story of her courthouse arrest chronicled in the N.Y. Times in 2014.[3] Most recently, in November 2016, a criminal defense client who was receiving treatment services through the Brooklyn Mental Health Court was arrested by ICE in the hallway of Brooklyn Supreme Court while he waited with his attorney for his case to be called. Our client had been reporting regularly to the criminal court for the past six months in accordance with his mental health court treatment plan. Our client has mental health diagnoses and had been hospitalized just prior to his ICE arrest in relation to his diagnoses.


  1. End Broken Windows Policing. The City Council must be a leader, calling upon the Mayor and the NYPD to end broken windows policing, a policy that, in criminalizing even the smallest of offenses, puts thousands of immigrants in danger.
  2. Pass legislation banning ICE from city buildings, including our courthouses.
  3. Monitor the Implementation of the Criminal Justice Reform Act. You must also ensure that the implementing language of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, passed by City Council last year, is very restrictive to require civil summonses in all but the narrowest group of well-defined cases.
  4. Work with District Attorneys to develop practices to protect immigrants. We offer our thanks to Speaker Mark-Viverito for working with the DA’s Offices to implement programs for warrant amnesties. We also ask the council to urge DA’s to expand the use of the criminal case disposition Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD) and allow defendants to enter into diversion programs without first entering a guilty plea, similar to the procedure provided by CPL 216.05(4).
  5. Urge Governor Cuomo to exercise his pardon power to protect immigrants from deportation. The City could fund community organizations or partner with pro bono law firms to file pardon applications and do pardon advocacy.
  6. Work with city agencies and community organizations to ensure that information that is disseminated to the public is accurate, especially as it relates to the immigration consequences of criminal court involvement.


III. In Federal Immigration Court

Rising caseloads

This month, the immigration docket at the federal courthouse at Varick Street added a third intake day. The courts are moving so quickly with cases that we cannot pick up cases fast enough. And so far, these are cases that were brought into the system during the Obama administration. We have not yet even seen the people who were arrested by ICE after President Trump took over. The third intake day is already exceeding our capacity to serve our existing clients, yet we expect further increased caseloads as we begin to see the results of the new enforcement priorities.

To make matters worse, not only are we seeing more cases, but we are seeing that ICE has become harsher towards our clients than they were even just last year.

Asylum seekers no longer being released on bond

For existing cases, we are seeing decreases in the use of prosecutorial discretion and discretionary release. Before last week, we had not had an asylum seeker released on bond in more than six weeks. It appears that the White House’s January 25 executive order on border enforcement had the effect of ICE refusing to release detained asylum seekers even where they had passed an initial screening interview and had a sponsor or family member with lawful status ready to house and support them. We have had a few releases since starting to file federal habeas corpus litigation against this practice, but remain concerned that going forward ICE’s default will be to detain everyone, including asylum seekers, parents, and victims of violence and trauma, and to fight release however we seek it.

ICE targeting people who won relief but have not yet received their visas or green cards

We are also seeing that NYIFUP clients who have been granted relief but have not yet received their green cards are being sought out by ICE and re-arrested. For example, we represent a 16-year-old client from Central America who has an approved Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) application who was arrested by the ICE gang unit and is now is secure detention. While his SIJS application was approved, he has not yet received his visa number from USCIS. It is unclear to us why he was taking into detention by ICE, as he was not arrested by the NYPD or did not try to re-enter the U.S., two reasons that people are sometimes re-detained after release.

Arrests in the courthouses

Our immigration clients, like our criminal defense clients, are scared to go to court. ICE agents now roam the hallways and last fall we often observed ICE agents arresting people in the courts. This was uncommon in recent years.

ICE OSUP check-ins

In some cases, ICE may decide not to execute a final removal order and might instead issue an “Order of Supervision,” or OSUP. A “post-order-of-removal” Order of Supervision may be issued under limited circumstances, such as when ICE determines the individual cannot be removed due to his or her country’s refusal to accept them, or when it is otherwise impracticable or contrary to the public interest to remove the individual. An Order of Supervision is considered to be a “humanitarian act” on the part of ICE, and may be available if the non-citizen is the primary care giver to a child with a medical condition, or if they themselves are receiving medical treatment for a serious condition, etc. The Order of Supervision will direct the non-citizen to appear at regular ICE check-ins, usually every few months and at least once a year.

Our clients who have been attending regular OSUP check-ins for years are now terrified to appear before ICE. One of our NYIFUP clients who was released from detention because he had a heart attack while in custody was recently hospitalized because of the stress and fear of deportation. Clients who previously checked in once or twice a year are now being asked to return in a couple of weeks or a month with their passports, ostensibly to facilitate deportation.

Our attorneys and office staff who are already overworked are doing their best to accompany our clients to these check-ins, but we simply do not have the capacity to meet the need and quell the fears of our clients.

The Need for NYIFUP

NYIFUP attorneys have never been more important. We are a human shield for our clients, doing everything in our power to show them compassion in a system that increasingly views our clients as deportable others – “criminals” or “aliens” with rights that can and are regularly trampled on. Even when we lose our client’s case, we provide them with the opportunity to share their story with the prosecutor and judge and make the case why they deserve to remain in this city with their family and community.

The Council’s commitment of universal representation for every detained person who meets the income requirements of NYIFUP is critical to ensure that every person who comes before immigration court in New York City is afforded the right to make their case, no matter their background. We have had cases with clients convicted of crimes that we later successfully vacated because they were innocent or wrongly charged. By building trust and rapport with our clients, many of whom are survivors of incredible violence and trauma back in their home countries, we investigate and present evidence about why our clients’ “criminal acts” are often the direct result of the trauma they have suffered. We have uncovered that many clients were actually U.S. citizens, but often never had the resources or tools to find the evidence to prove their citizenship until they were appointed a NYIFUP attorney. NYIFUP is the strongest example of our City’s commitment to immigrant New Yorkers, made stronger still by your commitment to universal representation – the belief that all people are worthy of representation.


  1. We ask that the City double current funding levels for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project to ensure that every detained New Yorker has access to representation when facing deportation.
  2. The city should increase funding on complex cases, whether in removal defense, affirmative applications, motions to reopen and stay of removal, or even for accompaniment of people to their OSUP check-ins.

In the Community

Clamoring for Know Your Rights

Since the presidential election last fall, our office has received increasing requests from the community to present Know Your Rights trainings to the community. Since the first immigration Executive Order was announced we are now receiving near daily requests for assistance from elected officials, community-based organizations, city agencies, religious institutions and the press. We are doing our best to meet the demand, but regularly have to turn down requests because we do not have the capacity.

Daily Calls from Current and Former Clients

All of our attorneys and paralegals have seen a huge increase of panicked calls from our clients, current and former, about what to do if ICE is at their door, whether or not they can travel, what they should be doing with their US citizen children, whether they should appear in court, requesting immigration legal services for their loved ones, and more.

In short, our communities are panicked and need the support of legal service providers more than ever. We want to continue to support all of our former and current clients, as well as serve more people, but our capacity is limited by the resources currently available to us.


  1. We ask that the Council fund legal service providers to perform community outreach, do know your rights presentations, conduct free legal screenings, and handle both straightforward and complex cases.


The New York City Council has demonstrated its leadership and support for immigrants through funding to legal service providers and the creation of NYIFUP. The way to help protect the rights of New Yorkers is by providing them education, legal counsel and support, and ending Broken Windows policing. BDS works to support immigrants and their families and communities every day, but the need for our services and the services provided by the dozens of other legal service providers and grassroots organizations is more acute than ever. We look forward to keeping you abreast of what we see every day on the ground and working together to craft policy responses that will help protect immigrant New Yorkers, strengthen families and stabilize communities.

[1] Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).

[2] Tatiana Schlossberg, New York City Police to Be Equipped with Smartphones and Tablets, N.Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/24/nyregion/new-york-city-police-to-be-equipped-with-smartphones-and-tablets.html.

[3] Kirk Semple, Advocates Seek to Make Courthouses Off Limits for Immigration Officials, N.Y. Times, May 26, 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/nyregion/advocates-seek-to-make-courthouses-off-limits-for-immigration-officials.html.



Talia Peleg, an immigration attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, represented Alex Lora in a case that would eventually reset immigration court policy in the New York City area and beyond. (Photo credit: Adi Talwar, City Limits)

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.



Nyasa Hickey talks to The Indypendent about ICE raids in New York.

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.



Some teen-aged children are kept in solitary confinement cells in the OBCC facility on Rikers Island

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.

Read more



Attorney Bridget Phillips Kessler speaks with Univision about her case.

“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.


Read more



BDS immigration attorney talks to NY1 Noticias about U visas and the NYPD's proposed rules for U visa certification requests.

Our Zoey Jones appeared NPR’s Morning Edition today to discuss U visas and the NYPD’s proposed rules for handling certification requests by immigrants who are assisting in the investigation of certain crimes. Listen below. Previously, Zoey was interviewed by NY1 Noticias. Watch here.



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.

Read more



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.



BDS's Anca Grigore, Deja Armstron, and Julia Howard-Gibbon joined tenants of "three-quarter houses" in New York City at a rally in front of the City Council to demand better protections of their rights.

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.



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.



BDS' Andrea Nieves joins Assembly Member Dan Quart and attorneys from the Legal Aid Society to call for passage of S6483A in the Senate.

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.




Photos courtesy of Sina Basila

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.


Memorandum of Support

A4880 (Blake)

An Act to amend the insurance law, in relation to charitable bail organizations

February 9, 2017

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) supports A4880 (Blake) which would limit restrictions on Charitable Bail Organizations (CBOs) therefore enabling these non-profit groups to assist more people throughout New York State. BDS is a public defense organization that provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and civil legal services, reentry support, social work support and community-based education to tens of thousands indigent Brooklyn residents every year.

Brooklyn Defender Services helped incubate the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund[i], which as an independent 501(C)(3) organization has bailed out more than 1,100 defendants who otherwise would have been locked up in City jails prior to the resolution of their case. Many of these defendants were BDS clients, and we have seen firsthand the positive impact CBOs can have on the administration of justice in our borough and throughout New York City.


Under existing New York State law, CBOs are able to deposit money as bail in the amount of two thousand dollars or less for a defendant charged with one or more misdemeanors, provided, however, that such organization shall not execute as surety any bond for any defendant. The current law also limits funds to operate in only one county, with a carve-out for CBOs located in New York City to operate within all five boroughs.[ii]

In 2012, when Charitable Bail Organizations were added to the Insurance Law to clarify rules about their activities, the inability of people whose bail was set higher than $2,000 to meet this financial condition was well-documented. Nevertheless this limit was put in place, perhaps because CBOs were a new type of entity and their activities had never been regulated before.


Due to the success of the CBOs currently in operation – both in their ability to post bail for indigent defendants thus reducing the number of people facing the traumas of incarceration in the absence of any finding of guilt for a specific crime, and in ensuring the return to court rates – it serves the State well to consider lifting some of the restrictions initially placed on these organizations in 2012.[iii]

In the second quarter of 2016, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, 9,415 people landed on Rikers Island despite bail amounts under $2,500.[iv] (The upper limit for CBOs is currently $2,000, but NYC data does not provide for statistics at that threshold). During that same time period, there were an additional 3,873 people who were incarcerated pre-trial in NYC because they were unable to post bail between $2,500 and $5,000. Extrapolated out to a full year, this means that the new bill could impact at least 15,492 people, in just New York City alone, a significant number. Our understanding of bail-setting practices outside New York City is that bails are comparatively higher. Thus we anticipate the higher threshold having a significant impact outside New York City as well.

Importantly, the proposed legislation would permit CBOs to post bail on cases with a top charge of a violation or a felony. At the moment when bail is set, the judge is not remanding a person, but setting some conditions that if met, would give the judge comfort that the defendant would return to court for their future court appearances. The purpose of bail is not to hold someone in jail until the conclusion of their case, though this occurs too often all across the state. The purpose of bail is release. Therefore CBOs should not arbitrarily be limited to posting bail for misdemeanors, but should be made available to those people who cannot afford the financial conditions set by a judge, no matter the charge.  .

Pre-trial incarceration is a grave injustice. Being in jail for just one day can lead to a lifetime of harmful consequences from which some of our clients never recover. There are dramatic racial disparities in our pre-trial systems. Requiring people to use financial resources to buy their way out of jail is discriminatory against those without financial means. Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest that requiring financial conditions of release actually increases the rate at which people return to court. Because the amendments proposed in A4880 will provide greater opportunities for people to remain at liberty while their case is adjudicated, we support this bill.


The bail system in New York State is broken.[v] Most problematically prosecutors ask for, and judges order, people to post financial conditions of release that far exceed their ability to pay, even though an individualized assessment of a defendant’s financial capacity to pay is required in the bail statute.. Our bail statute remains one of the most progressive in the country, but the application of the statute is a problem. While we support this bill because it will help people in need, it is not a panacea for all pre-trial problems. Our hope is this bill is one step in a longer march toward transformational reforms to the way justice is administered during the pre-trial period of a criminal case.

New York is one of just eight states that do not require judges to have legal training.[vi] This means that the judicial officers interpreting the bail statute, and sending people to jail on financial conditions they cannot afford, may not fully understand the law. It is no surprise that in New York City, where judges are legally trained and experienced, and public defenders are well-resourced, more people are released on their own recognizance, when compared to upstate counties. New York City’s jail population declined by half since its peak in 1999 yet other county jail populations, such as Montgomery County’s, has swelled. While New York City’s pre-trial system is comparatively better, still 60,000 people cycle through the City’s jail system each year, the vast majority of whom are their waiting for their case to be adjudicated.[vii] As CBOs in New York City have shown, many of these people will come back to court if released.

Looking to the future, there is no reason to restrict CBOs to posting only cash bail instead of surety bonds. Here in New York City and across the State, our clients experience wide-ranging fraud and exploitation at the hands of commercial bail bondsmen, who nevertheless continue to benefit from the current practices by the courts in setting  Insurance Bond as one of two options for people to meet their financial conditions of release, cash being the other. Although under the statute judges have nine forms of bail they can permit, and no requirement to set any form, which would allow defendant’s families to make decisions about what form they are capable of posting, , in Brooklyn and throughout NYS, Insurance Company Bond and cash are overwhelmingly the most common. If the CBO’s are to be able to help more people avoid pre-trial incarceration, there should be a broadening of the scope of their permitted activities.

Thank you very much for your consideration of our comments. If you have any questions, please reach out to Nick Malinowski, nmalinowski@bds.org or 718-254-0700 ext. 269.

[i] https://brooklynbailfund.org/

[ii] http://law.justia.com/codes/new-york/2015/isc/article-68/6805

[iii] https://brooklynbailfund.org/our-results/

[iv] http://www1.nyc.gov/site/criminaljustice/data-analytics/reports.page

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html?_r=0

[vi] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/when-your-judge-isnt-a-lawyer/515568/

[vii] https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/downloads/pdf/FY17_1st_QUARTER_2016_demog.pdf



BDS Youth Advocate Dorell Smallwood greets New York State Assemblymember Walter Mosley at Mosley's annual youth job fair.

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.”



Andrea Sáenz – Supervising Attorney

New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) Team


Presented before

The New York City Council

Committee on Immigration

Oversight Hearing on

Coordinating Multi-Agency Support for Immigrant Families

October 21, 2016

My name is Andrea Sáenz. I am the Supervising Attorney of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) team at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the City Council Committee on Immigration, and in particular Chair Menchaca, for the opportunity to testify today about the critical role that City agencies play in supporting immigrant New Yorkers and to make recommendations on how to coordinate multi-agency support.

New York City is the nation’s leader in supporting immigrant communities, in large part because of the advocacy and funding provided by the City Council. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) is New York City’s groundbreaking, first-in-the nation program providing quality counsel to immigrant New Yorkers who are detained and facing deportation and separation from their families and communities. BDS is proud to be a NYIFUP provider, along with The Bronx Defenders and The Legal Aid Society. In its first three years, NYIFUP has shown remarkable success and served as a model for access to justice. The following numbers were provided to us from the Vera Institute of Justice based on a preliminary and ongoing analysis of NYIFUP from earlier this year.

Record of Success

  • Outcomes: NYIFUP has obtained relief, termination, or administrative closure for 154 clients, who may now remain in the United States. NYIFUP attorneys have won more than half of their trials.
  • Clients Released from Detention: Counting these 154 successful outcomes, NYIFUP has secured release from custody for 452 clients. Thus, 31% of NYIFUP’s clients have been released from detention thus far and have been reunited with their families.
  • Ancillary Proceedings: NYIFUP has initiated 153 ancillary proceedings— proceedings in other courts or with USCIS that are critical to obtaining successful outcomes or release from detention in the deportation proceedings.
  • Voluntary Departures: NYIFUP has negotiated 102 voluntary departures so that individuals could avoid the onus and legal consequences of a deportation orders.
  • Families across the City: NYIFUP has represented clients living in 49 out of 51 City Council districts.

National Model

  • Spurring Replication Across New York State: Inspired by New York City’s leadership, the New York State Assembly provided funding in FY 2015 for a small pilot program at the Batavia Immigration Court in upstate New York, which has shown great success reuniting detained immigrants with their families. In FY 2016, the State Assembly doubled this funding, expanding the reach of NYIFUP pilot programs upstate. In FY 2017, the State Legislature tripled that funding, and the upstate pilot programs are reaching a significant number of clients who would never have had counsel without the spark that we started here in the city.
  • Inspiring Efforts Across the Country: NYIFUP has been the subject of national press and inquiry from jurisdictions across the country. In 2015, a NYIFUP-inspired universal representation program opened its doors in New Jersey, and cities including San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston have convened formal “study groups” to issue reports on access to counsel and develop programs like NYIFUP in their jurisdictions. Currently, Los Angeles is seriously considering a city-funded pilot program to follow in New York’s footsteps.

Connecting Clients to City Services
NYIFUP saves lives and strengthens immigrant communities. Critical to our success are the social workers who round out our legal teams, providing emotional support and connecting our clients and their family members with necessary services. By recognizing that social workers are a necessary component to any defense team, the City ensures that NYIFUP clients and their families are in the best position to access all of the programs and services that City and non-profits provide to New Yorkers.

I am proud to say that each of the three NYIFUP provider organizations has one or two in-house social workers on their NYIFUP team, who help us plan services a client can access upon release from ICE detention, and help support clients and family members as they complete their cases and transition to more stable and productive lives in the city they call home. As a program that is administered by the Human Resources Administration, we are proud to be able to connect clients to HRA benefits and other agency services.

This summer, when the City Council increased funding for NYIFUP – for which we are extremely grateful — I sat down with every member of the BDS NYIFUP team and asked them what type of hiring we should do to provide better services to our clients. My staff overwhelmingly said, if we had more social work support, we could do so much more to help stabilize our client’s statuses and other factors in their lives, and ensure they don’t come back to immigration trouble or to the same points of crisis in their lives. We were able to expand our social work services this year, and for that I want to sincerely thank the Council. It is making a difference.

Our clients’ stories demonstrate the value of social work support and the ways that the City supports our clients through important services.

Client Stories
Daniel from Jamaica
Daniel is a gay man from Jamaica who experienced severe homophobia and violence from his own family and from ordinary citizens in Jamaica, including having stones thrown at him and being chased by police. He came to the U.S. seeking asylum, but ended up in ICE detention because of a prior fraud conviction. NYIFUP staff worked very hard presenting Daniel’s case, and as a result, the immigration judge agreed that he has been persecuted in Jamaica and that he faced possible torture or death if he returned based on his sexual orientation and the rampant homophobic violence we documented there. Because his single conviction barred him from asylum, he was granted an alternate form of relief, deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture. He was released from detention after many months and began building a new life.

However, Daniel had a lot of difficulty accessing city and other services because people did not understand the status he had been granted. He initially was turned away for Medicaid and Essential Plan eligibility, and only after our NYIFUP social worker and a health insurance navigator at another organization stepped in, he was finally enrolled in the Essential Plan and will be able to access medical care. Daniel then went to apply for Safety Net assistance, but was turned away twice by an employee who believed that a person without a Social Security number was not eligible. Again, with the assistance of our social worker and a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society, we sent Daniel back a third time armed with a cover letter and documents. Daniel asserted himself and asked for a supervisor, and the supervisor agreed he was eligible and that she would re-train her staff. Daniel is now going to be able to worry less about his day to day survival and will be pursuing jobs and education programs that will help him become a productive New Yorker.

Mr. C from Mali
Mr. C is a French-speaking asylum seeker from Mali who was persecuted by his own family and community because he is gay, including being stabbed by his own father. He fled Mali and asked for asylum at the U.S. border. He was initially released on parole and changed his residence to New York, in part because he had heard New York City is a welcoming place for gay men where he could find a supportive community.

At an immigration check-in where Mr. C was not provided an interpreter, a miscommunication led to him being re-arrested and detained without bond, which was deeply traumatizing to him. Mr. C obtained a French-speaking attorney through NYIFUP who started advocating for his release. His mental health deteriorated rapidly in detention, and he attempted suicide and was hospitalized. Scared for his safety, BDS filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court and demanded his immediate release rather than his return to ICE detention, which the hospital staff were concerned would continue to affect his mental health. After two tense weeks of negotiation, Mr. C was released.

BDS’s in-house social worker connected him with New York City’s unique array of services and support, including a support group at Gay Men of African Descent, a GED class, and an employment program. He has referred to his NYIFUP team as his “family.” He has gotten his OSHA certificate, is eager to contribute to his new hometown, and will finish his strong asylum case with his NYIFUP team by his side.

As our client stories show, legal service providers are well-situated to assess our clients’ needs and connect them with voluntary services that will impact both the outcome of their legal case and the quality of their life. On a regular basis we connect our clients with GED classes, OSHA certification or other professional training programs, affordable housing, educational advocacy, support groups, community groups, family and individual therapy, civil legal services advocacy, assistance with family court cases, and any other issue that may arise. We have had a number of extremely positive experiences getting our clients connected to the shelter system, benefits, education, and other services and are very grateful to New York City for its resources. While our social workers are skilled at helping our clients find programs and services, they can waste significant amounts of time trying to track down the correct contact information.

We recommend that the Council work with city agencies such as HRA and MOIA to establish an immigrant families support task force that would create a formal space for representatives from city agencies and nonprofit providers to meet and discuss challenges to coordination. It would also be useful if BDS and other service providers had the names and phone numbers of agency employees who are willing to serve as agency point-people for non-profit providers. The task force could brainstorm ways to improve agency coordination and report back to the council with legislative recommendations, if necessary.

It would be especially useful if we could communicate more easily with city agencies while clients are still detained to get as much of an idea as possible of what types of services our clients would likely be eligible to apply for if they are released from detention. Our clients’ bond or merits cases are often highly dependent on convincing an immigration judge that we will be able to connect them to some resources to continue their positive path upon release.

We would also welcome the opportunity to help educate city agencies about some of the more “unusual” or lesser-understood immigration statuses that our clients have and what different court and agency paperwork means. For example, NYIFUP wins many cases where the client ends up with both a removal order and a suspension of that removal order because the client faces significant danger if deported. These clients have orders of supervision, grants of withholding of removal and protection under the Convention Against Torture, and paperwork that does not look like the paperwork of people with asylum or refugee status. In addition, clients who win their cases in immigration court have paperwork that can look different than those of clients who win status before the immigration agencies. They can thus struggle to get the benefits they are eligible for. If there is any way we can help with training or provide examples of our client’s statuses, paperwork, and stories, we would love to do so.

New York City is doing more for immigrant families than any other city in the country. NYIFUP is the perfect testament to City Council’s commitment to our immigrant communities. We believe that increased coordination between city agencies and community-based providers would be helpful in ensuring that New Yorkers are able to access the thousands of resources that are available to them. Opportunities for dialogue and communication, and even a simpler way for providers like us to have regularly updated contact information or to have point people within HRA or within other agencies would go a long way in facilitating coordination.

Of course, we also hope that you will continue to support the legal services and wrap-around services that are provided through NYIFUP, and continue to support the inclusion of social work as an integral part of our high quality legal services. I assure you that our amazing social workers have helped ensure that our clients are able to maintain stable immigration status that we fought so hard for, and to help them access support, community, healing, and a path to economic independence and contribution to this city.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. We are grateful to the Council for its continued attention to the needs of immigrant families.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 434) or asaenz@bds.org.



(Photo credit: Victor Chu, Freelance NYDN)

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

Monday, August 29, 2016, 5:00 AM

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

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

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

Consider some recent clients at Brooklyn Defender Services:

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

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




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.



S5988A (Squadron)/A8296A (Aubry)

“Kalief’s Law”

March 1, 2016

Brooklyn Defender Services (“BDS”) strongly supports S. 5988A (Squadron)/A. 8296A (Aubry) which would amend Section 30.30 of the Criminal Procedure Law (C.P.L. §30.30) to require prosecutors to prove readiness for trial by certifying compliance with disclosure requirements.  BDS is a comprehensive indigent legal service organization that provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and civil legal services, and social work support to more than 45,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.

The U.S. Constitution provides criminal defendants with the right to a speedy trial. Yet the current iteration of New York’s “Speedy Trial” Law (C.P.L. §30.30) subverts justice and the Constitution by allowing the People and the courts to delay cases for months or years at a time to the detriment of defendants and the community.

Kalief’s Law is named in honor of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who spent three years on Riker’s Island awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. At Riker’s he suffered abuse at the hands of corrections officers and other inmates and spent two years in solitary confinement. The prosecution eventually dropped the charges against him, but his experiences continued to haunt him and, earlier this year, he committed suicide.

Kalief’s Law would amend C.P.L. §30.30 to limit delays, resulting in a more swift resolution for defendants and witnesses and cost-savings for the courts and community. Too many people have been harmed by a system characterized by delay, inefficiency and abuse. Kalief’s Law is an important step towards advancing the cause of justice in New York.


Though Article 30 of the Criminal Procedure Law identifies Section 30.30 as a speedy trial statute, it is, by design and practice, a prosecution ready rule. This means that a trial does not have to actually start within the time required to avoid dismissal of the case. Rather, the prosecution must merely claim to be “ready” for trial within that period.

Under C.P.L. § 30.30, a criminal defendant may file a motion to dismiss the charge(s) if the people are not ready for trial within 180 days of the commencement of the action for felonies, 90 days for high-level misdemeanors (punishable with jail sentences of over 3 month), 60 days for low-level misdemeanors (punishable with jail sentences less than 3 months), or 30 days for violations.

Despite these time limits, cases often go on for months or even years. One reason is a statutory exception to the readiness rule for “exceptional circumstances” such as the sudden unavailability of evidence material to the people’s case. The people also are able to drag cases on by filing an “off-calendar” statement of readiness. The prosecutor will obtain an adjournment on the date of trial because they are “not ready” and then a few days later will file an “off-calendar” statement of readiness on a day when no one is in court. This stops the speedy-trial clock for the rest of the adjournment period which may last for multiple months.


This bill would amend § 30.30 by:

  • Requiring a representative of the People to prove readiness for trial by affirming that the People’s evidence is imminently available.
  • Requiring that a valid statement of trial readiness be accompanied or preceded by a certification of compliance with the disclosure requirements set forth in section 240.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law.
  • Requiring that exclusions to the computation of time, when a statement of unreadiness has followed a statement of readiness made by the People, be accompanied by supporting facts and approved by the court.


Kalief Browder’s traumatic experience on Riker’s Island is not atypical. Earlier this year New York City announced that over 400 people had been locked up on Riker’s Island for more than two years without being convicted of a crime. Troublingly, the majority of inmates are not detained in Riker’s because they pose a threat to public safety. In New York City, roughly 45,000 people are jailed each year simply because they can’t pay their court-assigned bail. At any given time, BDS has around 1,000 clients awaiting trial or resolution of their cases on Riker’s, many of them for failure to meet bail amounts of less than $5,000. While at Riker’s, our clients are subject to all manner of undue and excessive punishment, including lack of access to health care and mental health services, physical and sexual violence, job loss, eviction, interrupted education, and the torture of solitary confinement. A recent lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society against the City of New York about deplorable conditions on the Island’s facilities, which was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice and finally settled in June of this year, shed light on the routine and institutionalized culture of rape, sexual assault and beatings of inmates at the hands of corrections officers and other inmates. It is an open secret that prosecutors use pre-trial detention to extract plea agreements involving admissions of guilt from defendants. Reforming C.P.L. § 30.30 is necessary to promote justice by reducing the amount of time that defendants spend on the Island.

BDS clients fighting their cases from the outside are also harmed by delay. These are clients who were released on their own recognizance or were able to post bail. The average length of time from arraignment until trial for BDS felony clients is 464 days, up from the City average of 380 days in 2008. Our clients spend months or years with charges pending over them, inhibiting their ability to obtain a job or housing. Some clients lose their jobs because of either the pending charges or because they missed work due to court dates or pre-trial detention. Those with more flexible jobs or employers have to miss work, often well over a dozen times during the duration of their case, resulting in lost wages.

Complaining witnesses and other parties such as defendants’ family members suffer when cases linger on without resolution. They too are required to return to court multiple times, taking time off work and away from their families. Parenting defendants may lose custody of their children, some of whom must enter the foster care system while their parent is detained pre-trial. Long delays by the prosecution and the courts serve no legitimate purpose and ultimately diminish the integrity of our court system.

Justice delayed is justice denied. Kalief’s Law provides an important and cost-effective way to limit how long defendants are detained on Riker’s Island, provides defendants and victims with faster resolution, and promote justice for all. For these reasons, Brooklyn Defender Services urges you to co-sponsor and support S. 5988A/A. 8296A.

Questions? Contact Andrea Nieves, anieves@bds.org, (718) 254-0700 ext. 387




Before The New York City Board of Corrections Hearing

Regarding Proposed Changes to Minimum Standards

October 16, 2015 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify regarding proposed rules relating to visitation, packages, solitary confinement and Enhanced Supervision Housing in New York City Jails. Brooklyn Defender Services represents about 40,000 people per year in Brooklyn during their criminal proceedings.  Of those, approximately 6,000 pass through the city jail system.  We have grave concerns about the proposed rule changes and their consequences for our clients, their families and communities.

The initial petition for rulemaking by the New York City Department of Correction (hereafter “the Department” or “DOC”) was received several months ago.  The Department’s proposal garnered many questions from community members, advocates, public defenders, attorneys, incarcerated New Yorkers and their families.  During your June meeting, Board members acknowledged that many important questions had been raised, contributed their own additional questions and concerns, and expressed an expectation that the Department address these concerns before rule changes would be considered.

During the Board’s July meeting, the Department delivered a presentation which did not respond to requests for empirical evidence demonstrating the need for rule changes, and did not clarify the serious concerns about vague language and procedural issues in the proposed rules.  The Department has failed in its obligation to provide evidence as to why the proposed changes are necessary, they have not demonstrated any effort to achieve the purported goals of the rule changes through less intrusive means, and there is no clear plan for implementation of the rule changes should they be adopted. The proposed rules under consideration now appear nearly identical to those proposed several months ago.

Solitary Confinement

The proposed rule changes related to solitary confinement are fundamentally about the Department’s ability to punish and isolate people in the jails without meaningful oversight or accountability, rolling back reforms limiting the use of torturous isolation in New York City.  It is astonishing that the Board has initiated rulemaking to effectively undo thoughtfully drafted rules adopted less than a year ago after an arduous process involving countless hours of work and diverse contributions from experts and stakeholders – without any compelling, documented evidence that the changes are necessary.  The Board adopted limits to solitary confinement with the express mission to reduce the harm caused by solitary confinement upon New Yorkers in city jails. Unless there is new evidence that certain people are somehow not affected by this harm, the Board would contradict its own mission if any expansion of solitary confinement is permitted. There is nothing in the proposed rules or the Statement of Basis and Purpose to explain how the harm of expanded solitary confinement will be mitigated.

The proposed rule changes consist of two main components: lengthening of solitary confinement sentences for assaults on staff and granting discretion to the Department to override the seven-day reprieve from solitary for individuals who have served thirty consecutive days in solitary confinement without meaningful oversight.

The Board should reject proposed changes to its recently adopted limits on solitary confinement without clear, documented evidence demonstrating an urgent need for such changes, including that the Department has exhausted all alternative measures to respond to violence. The Department has not publicly provided the Board or interested parties with detailed information regarding violent incidents necessitating prolonged isolation during the last several months. Indeed the evidence presented instead reflects that with a decline in the use of solitary has come a decline in assaults on staff: the Department’s Petition for Rulemaking noted an approximately 40 percent reduction in assaults on staff between FY2015 to date and the same period in 2014 (27 down from 47). Perhaps more importantly, the Department has not demonstrated with specific cases or empirical data, an effort to use alternative, less harmful and possibly more effective responses to violent behavior.  Thereby the Department fails to demonstrate a need to roll-back limits on isolation.

Override of Seven Day Reprieve

When the Board established a 30 day limit on stays in Solitary Confinement and incorporated a seven-day reprieve from solitary confinement between 30 day sentences, it did so to reduce the harm inflicted by long term solitary confinement.  To end these protections for people who are alleged to continue to engage in violent behavior will not succeed in reducing violence, and contradicts the Board’s intent to reduce the harm of long-term isolation. If 30 days of isolation does not succeed in addressing behavior, there is no reason to believe that a faster return to additional isolation will have different results. Indeed, it is likely that the isolation itself is a contributing factor to ongoing violent behavior.

At the beginning of this year, the Department successfully established the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit to more securely house those they claimed were the most dangerous people in the system.  Yet, at this juncture, the Department claims that there are individuals who must be housed in 23 hour isolation in order to keep the jails safe.  This assertion is made without documentation that these individuals could not be safely housed in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (or elsewhere), where there has been consistently low census. In fact, when asked about this population during the June Board meeting, the Department stated that only some of the people eligible for an override of the 30 day limit would have been considered for placement in ESHU.  No reasoning was provided as to why individuals who commit violent acts could not be safely housed in ESHU or other secure units (enhanced restraints units, or the close custody unit at NIC for example). If not to house the population of people leaving maximum solitary confinement stays, who need to be separated from the General Population and require increased security and programming, why were these units created?

The Department has not provided any details regarding the characteristics distinguishing those people who should be placed in ESHU and those who would be sent back to isolation should the new rules be adopted.  The Department has not endeavored to explore targeted programmatic or therapeutic interventions to behavioral issues among the small population used to justify this rule change. The Department has not utilized existing tools available to manage violence, or attempted to expand programming within existing units to provide services to a wider range of individuals, which is apparently a necessary next step in light of the Department’s claims.  Permitting an override to the seven day reprieve or longer sentences for certain infractions will only lead to an ongoing cycle of violence and isolation, with which we are all too familiar.

Violence in isolation and shortly after return from isolation is rooted in a culture of neglect and abuse in solitary confinement units.  The Board should be dubious about reports of violence in segregated housing and reports of assaults on staff which place all responsibility on incarcerated people.  How is it that people who are confined in cells 23 hours per day, escorted in handcuffs or shackles and only leaving their cells for a slightly larger cell outdoors, are responsible for committing acts of violence? The Department of Justice noted in its investigation of violence on Rikers Island that reports of assaults on staff reflected a practice of inaccurate reporting used to justify heavy reliance on solitary confinement.[1]

Our clients in solitary confinement routinely report that they are denied basic needs like toilet tissue.  They report that they do not have access to the telephone to call their families or their attorneys.  They describe an inability to access medical care. They report that they cannot get attention from mental health staff when they well up with anxiety from being made to live in a filthy concrete box without contact with other human beings.  In order to get access to these basic needs, our clients must resort to small protests like holding open the slot through which they are fed or flooding their cell. When they do, the response is routinely for the Department to send a “probe team” to extract the person violently from their cell.  In almost all cases, the person will be infracted for resisting staff or assault on staff as a result of the extraction.  These are Grade 1 Infractions which would, under proposed rules, lead to ever-longer stays in isolation.  This cycle of violence only escalates as people become more desperate and resentful about their conditions; their small moments of agency may become more drastic as their isolation persists.  It should be of no surprise that individuals who feel their only agency lies in an act of disobedience may carry this sentiment with them into the General Population – the harm of solitary reverberates through an entire system.

During the Board meeting on October 13, 2015, HHC Associate Commissioner Dr. Venters reported that many of the individuals who were the subjects of the overrides after 60 days in solitary were held over for infractions that did not involve actual violence but rather threats or gestures. He also reported that more than 89 percent had three or more mental health contacts.  According to Dr. Venters, more than 50 percent of the people in isolation overall suffer from mental health conditions which are exacerbated by isolation, leading to the very behavior that keeps them there.  This report is a good indication of the circumstances in which the proposed overrides of the 7 day reprieve would be used and who would be subjected to them.  These individuals will be subjected to continuous, long term isolation not because of “persistent violent acts” but because of gestures and threats. Unwillingness on the part of the Department and Healthcare officials to think urgently and creatively about how to manage and program this population safely has led us here. The escalation of immense and horrifying self-harm, cell-fires and desperation in GRVC 12 Main before it was shuttered this year should be foretelling of the consequences when isolation is the only response to difficult behavior. After all, the same population, including some of the very same individuals who were housed there, are now the subject of 60 day overrides, and will be denied the 7 day reprieve should the new rules be adopted.

60 Day Sentences for Assault on Staff

For many of the same reasons described above, Brooklyn Defender Services also opposes the expansion of sentences to 60 days for assault on staff. Again, the Board only recently adopted rules intended to mitigate the harm of solitary confinement and there is nothing to support a claim that committing certain acts justifies exposing people to this harm. The United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, to which a United States delegation is a party, recently submitted a report recommending revisions the UN Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.  Included in these recommendations is an explicit prohibition of terms in solitary confinement longer than 15 days. [2]  In light of this report, it is immoral for the Board to lengthen stays in solitary confinement – the Board should continue to move in the direction to reduce solitary confinement to internationally recognized standards which US officials have agreed are imperative to maintain human dignity.

The Statement of Basis and Purpose introducing the proposed rule changes states that sentences of 60 days in solitary confinement for assaults on staff are intended to serve as a “deterrent to dangerous behavior.”  There is no evidence to support that solitary confinement is an effective deterrent to violent behavior.  The Department has provided no evidence regarding how this rule change will impact jail violence in real terms, nor do they present a convincing argument about the need for this rule change except their desire to support correctional staff by punishing incarcerated people more severely.

Prior to reforms adopted earlier this year, the CPSU was filled with hundreds of people serving months in solitary confinement, with hundreds more on a waiting list.  Violence continued to plague the jails.  You need not look further than the recent past to know that long sentences in solitary confinement will not effectively control or deter violence.  Moreover, it is well documented that prolonged solitary confinement will only lead to more violent behavior; one notable symptom attributed to prolonged isolation (longer than 15 days) is “problems with impulse control including random violence and self-harm.”[3]

The Vera Institute recently released a report, Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives, surveying a number of studies which demonstrate that the Department’s argument on this point is flawed.  The report finds that solitary confinement has not been shown to deter or reduce violence, instead pointing to alternative programming interventions as a more successful approach.[4]  We also encourage the Board to review the testimony of its own experts, Doctors Gilligan and Lee, regarding the failure of solitary confinement to effectively respond to violence in New York City Jails.  Their findings were unambiguous – if the goal is to reduce violence, solitary confinement should be reduced.[5]

The Board should advise the Department to study the reasons for declines in violence in the adolescent jail after solitary was abolished. Declines in assaults generally and assaults on staff specifically among that population have been touted as successes by the Department and can serve as a foundation to implement evidence-based practices elsewhere in the jail system. When truly difficult-to-manage individuals emerge, the Department has tools to manage this population. The Department’s petition for rulemaking, and now the Board’s proposed rules both appear to ignore that just a few months ago the Department created the new ESHU in order to more safely house individuals who may need to be separated from the population in order to protect staff and other people in the jails. There has not been a documented spike in violence toward staff and no additional evidence has been provided that the ESHU is insufficient or to support a need for longer sentences in solitary confinement. The Board should remain steadfast in its commitment to reducing the harm of solitary confinement regardless of the alleged infraction.

In short, the proposal to lengthen solitary sentences is transparently punitive, will not serve the stated purpose and should be rejected.


Correctional staff may view longer sentences in solitary confinement as a justifiable punishment and a convenient management tool. This does not justify the torture of pretrial detainees and it detracts from the public safety mission of the Department.  The vast majority of the people in our city jails will at some point return to their communities.  The irreparable psychological and physiological harm caused by solitary confinement will reverberate through these communities, ultimately making us less safe. The Board and the Department have an obligation to look beyond the walls of our jails to our larger communities when safety is the stated goal.

The Board must also recognize the bias with which solitary confinement is meted out in our city jails and acknowledge that the effects of any expansion in its use are likely to be felt disproportionately by people of color.  Recent research by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene suggests that there is a relationship between race and responses by healthcare and corrections staff to poor behavior in the jails.  Black and non-white Hispanic people are more likely to be punished with solitary confinement than their white counterparts, and are less likely to be assessed for therapeutic interventions early in their incarceration.[6]  We believe the Board should share our concern that the rollback of limits on solitary confinement will unfairly impact people of color.  This is yet another reason the proposed rule changes should be rejected.

As we have stated in the past, we share the Department’s concern about jail violence, and we do not believe that the answer is to do nothing. We encourage the Board and Department to utilize all available tools to respond to violence and explore alternative responses to violence that preserve human dignity.  It is irresponsible to revert back to a response that emphasizes punishment and results in torture, all the while failing to achieve reduced violence.


The Board should reject the proposed rule changes with regard to visiting. The emotional support our clients receive from their families is invaluable.  Family visits are a source of solace and calm for our incarcerated clients in a setting where they are dehumanized, pulled from their communities, deprived of basic needs and perpetually at risk of violence.  The vast majority of people incarcerated in city jails are pre-trial detainees who rely on their communities to fight their cases and protect their rights during incarceration.  Because the majority of people in city jail are legally innocent, their right to maintain a connection with their families and communities is so fundamental that the Board should consider any restriction on visiting and contact as an absolutely last resort. If the primary concern of the Department is reducing violence, the Department should be working to improve access for visitors, make family visits more child-friendly, and reform the arduous visiting procedures to which families are subjected. Making visits more difficult and limiting physical contact will discourage family members from visiting, causing further isolation and desperation among the incarcerated population, thereby fomenting further violence.

The Department has not presented a record to demonstrate that visitors are a significant source of contraband smuggling.  To justify its rule change, the Department has cited 29 individuals who were arrested with weapon contraband during the first 6 months of 2015. They also note 24 weapons found in visiting rooms, although they do not define what constitutes a weapon. The Department states that up to 1,500 people visit Rikers daily.[7] Starting with the Department’s data, if all the weapons referenced were smuggled in on one day – that would mean approximately 1,447 people (or 96%) had nothing to do with smuggling contraband.  To capture the full six month period, the number of visits jumps to 270,000, meaning that 269,447 visits had nothing to do with contraband smuggling during that period.  It is absurd to adopt rule changes impacting hundreds of thousands of visits due to alleged smuggling by .0001% of visitors.

As we have noted previously, the Department of Investigation has found that a large majority of contraband is smuggled into the jails by uniformed and civilian staff.  Moreover, the Board’s own report has found that a majority of weapons in the jails are made from materials found in the jails and not from smuggled items.[8]  We believe it is inappropriate for the Board to adopt rule changes proposed by the Department before requesting specific reporting regarding the Department’s efforts to control these sources of weapons, which the data show are more urgent concerns.  The recent arrest of a correctional officer smuggling large knives into a jail suggests that this officer was not particularly concerned about the security procedures to which he was subjected.[9]  This attempted smuggling took place well after increased security measures for staff were initiated by the Department. If this officer felt audacious enough to casually smuggle in multiple large knives, how many others feel confident smuggling harder-to-detect contraband into the jails?

Our Jail Services staff spends hours at the jails each week.  While waiting for clients to be produced, they witness correctional officers set off alarms at magnetometers and be permitted entry; some officers who are confronted about setting off the magnetometer will pass through three times as mandated and never clear, but still enter the jail; officers may not set off a magnetometer, but their pockets remain bulging as they walk through the gate; front gate officers look away from x-ray monitors as bags pass through the scanners; all the while, officers loudly bemoan that they have to “strip down” as they enter secure correctional facilities.  The only time our staff has witnessed contraband-sniffing dogs in the jails has been when they arrive to conduct a search of a housing unit or of visitors, never to inspect officers as they come on for a shift.

The Statement of Basis and Purpose draws a connection between visits and “the proliferation of dangerous contraband, including small, hand-to-hand weapons, such as scalpels and razor blades.” The Department has provided no data related to the number of such weapons discovered during visit searches.  In fact, during visit committee meetings our staff has requested specific data related to the number and specific type of contraband recovered during visits in order to better understand the scope of the problem from the perspective of the Department, but no such data has been provided.  The Board should reject rules based simply on the “beliefs” of the Department, without supporting evidence and documentation. Instead, the Board should re-focus their efforts to tackling issues that the data shows are more urgent and will have a greater impact on controlling weapon contraband – establishing meaningful controls on staff smuggling of contraband and embarking on significant physical plant repairs.

The Department has stated in the past, and it is noted in the Statement of Basis and Purpose, that the proposed visiting procedures resemble those of other large jurisdictions, specifically Los Angeles and Cook County.  No one has provided any information about why these jurisdictions should be emulated.  Cursory research reveals that both of these jurisdictions have failed to reduce violence.  In the case of Los Angeles, the county jail system is under renewed court scrutiny related to jail violence with a focus on violence by staff upon detainees.[10]  The second-in-command of the LA County Sherriff’s Department was indicted this year for interfering with a Federal Investigation into jail conditions which led to the arrests of several officers.[11]  The long time Sherriff Lee Baca recently resigned, many believe, due in large part to the ongoing violence and corruption in the jails.[12]  It is our position that New York City should not take lessons from Los Angeles County regarding jail management.

Similarly, Cook County is currently the subject of class action litigation related to violence and overcrowding in its jails.[13]  It has already been under Federal monitoring resulting from a 2010 consent decree with the Department of Justice related to jail violence.[14]  Simply because a jurisdiction is large does not make it a good model on which to base policy.  We urge you to reject this argument as a basis to adopt the proposed rules.

Even if you accept the Department’s argument that they must control all possible sources of contraband in order to limit violence, they already have the tools to properly control contraband entering through visits under existing procedures.  There has not been a single incident of jail violence where it has been proven, or even suggested by the Department, that the weapon in question was smuggled through a visit. The cumbersome visiting procedure for community members was described to you by our Jail Services Social Worker during your May meeting, and is reiterated below.

I visited on a Thursday; where visiting hours ran from 1 to 8pm.  As someone who had never been through the visitor center before, I didn’t know what to expect.  There were no clear signs directing you which line to wait in, what you should have ready or even what next steps would look like.

You’re required to go through three checkpoints when visiting someone and you can expect a wait time of three to five hours for a one hour visit.  I was told to leave everything in a locker, yet I’d need $.50 for the two lockers I was about to encounter, which DOC does not warn you on their website.  At the first checkpoint I was asked to take off all layers, my shoes and walk through a metal detector while my stuff went through the x-ray.  I was then required to check in according to the jail I was visiting, have my thumb print and my driver’s license scanned.  I proceeded to wait for the shuttle when the canine unit came around and an officer told me to remove everything from my lap and pockets and put my hands to my side while he went through my belongings.  When I was dropped off in front of the jail, I repeated the process and this time there was a machine set up to wipe my hands for any chemical residue.

It took one hour to reach the second checkpoint and another two hours before I sat down with the person I came see.  There’s no signage about expectations and the officers wouldn’t inform me why it was taking so long.  The officers were unexpressive, hardly said a word and acted like I wasn’t even a person.  In the third checkpoint, a private area was created by a pulled screen.  I was told to take off my shoes for the third time, turn my socks inside out, pull up my sleeves, use my thumbs to move across the inside of my pants, lift up my hair, open my mouth and eventually bend over and lift up my bra.  By the end I felt exposed and humiliated.  When I was cleared, I was told to wait again.  Overall, it took me five hours of waiting and security measures for a one hour visit.

Throughout the entire process, I witnessed several families with children.  I was a witness to their understanding of what it means to be institutionalized.  Children were patted down, invaded by dog searches and were relentlessly waiting in lines.  Visiting someone in Rikers is both psychologically and physically demanding for children and adults.

The disturbing experience described here is the norm.  We know that for many visitors conditions are much worse.  In 2010, New York City settled a lawsuit for $150,000 with a man who was seriously assaulted by correctional staff while he attempted to visit a loved one at Rikers.[15]  Another more recent complaint alleges that a woman was sexually assaulted by correction officers during intrusive searches prior to a visit with a loved one.[16]

In addition to the intrusive searches endured by family members, people who are incarcerated are subjected to strip searches before and after visiting with their family.  These strip searches are performed by officers precisely so that they can take care to find weapons or other contraband not detected by magnetometers or other scanners. If contraband is ever recovered, the Department currently has the ability to limit visits to non-contact “booth visits” through existing procedures. If staff performed the mandated searches appropriately, these procedures should be adequate to intercept contraband smuggled during visits. The Board should not punish mostly pre-trial detainees and their families for the failure of staff to follow existing procedures.  If the Board believes changes are warranted,  less onerous changes to visiting protocols should be evaluated before allowing the Department unrestrained discretion to deny or limit visits.

In addition to our objections regarding the need for rule changes, we also have serious concerns with the language of the proposed rules and their implementation if adopted.  We are pleased to see that the Board has incorporated positive language into the proposed rules that acknowledges the importance of visiting for incarcerated people and their communities, and the wide range of individuals who may compose a community for incarcerated people.  However, positive language must be reinforced by clear, detailed language and procedures which will ensure that important social connections will not be eviscerated simply based on the suspicions of a correction officer or other official. Such details are conspicuously absent in the proposed rules as presently drafted.



The inclusion of positive language about the importance of visits and the range of people who constitute visitors for incarcerated people is admirable.  However, the changes in the proposed rule actually weaken the rights of incarcerated people to receive visits.

The existing rules read “Prisoners are entitled to receive personal visits of sufficient length and number.” The proposed rules read “All inmates are entitled to receive periodic personal visits.”  Inserting the word “periodic” and deleting the phrase “of sufficient length and number” suggests that the Department wants discretion to limit the number, length or frequency of visits certain people receive. The Department has provided no information as to why such discretion is warranted, or how it would be used.  We agree that “Maintaining personal connections with positive social and family networks and support systems is critical to improving outcomes both during confinement and reentry.” The Board should adopt language that strengthens protections for access to visits, not the opposite.


The proposed limits on contact for incarcerated people and their families through a plexi-glass partition are unnecessary and harmful to incarcerated people, their families and their communities.  It is disingenuous for the Department or the Board to claim that because the partition is short, it will not interrupt sustained contact during visits. One cannot be held by their mother in the same way when plexi-glass separates them.  Sustained contact plays an essential role in the calming effects visiting provides.  Using barriers to establish more separation between incarcerated people and their support networks will lead to greater feelings of desperation and alienation, contrary to the goal of reducing violence. Again, the Department has the necessary tools to intercept any contraband entering the jails under current procedures when executed properly, and have not presented a record as to why this rule change is necessary or how it will be effective in achieving the stated goal.


Existing Minimum Standards provide the Department latitude to limit visits when there is a clear nexus between visiting and a threat to security.  The proposed rules would expand the Department’s discretion to deny or limit visits based on a set of criteria that is vague and overly broad.  The criteria includes the “lack of a family relationship,” probation and parole status, previous convictions for drugs or weapons, recent release from prison or jail, and pending criminal charges.  While the proposed rules state that “such factors alone shall not form the sole basis for the Department’s final determination,” there is no language describing how these or other factors would be weighed when determining whether to deny a visit.  Also unclear is how the Department intends to gather and evaluate information about these criteria; which staff member will be responsible for doing so, and when.  What qualifications will Department staff have to evaluate what constitutes a “close relationship” for an incarcerated person?  The Board should be deeply concerned about this vague language, as it suggests that the Department intends to research the backgrounds of innocent visitors based on no defined threat – a patent invasion of privacy.

The proposed rules also allow the department to consider the “nature” of previous convictions or pending charges to justify denial of a visit.  It is simply absurd to utilize alleged acts in making determinations to limit such an essential right as access to family visits, should you accept that the foundation of our legal system rests on a premise of innocence until proven guilty. The language notes that felony convictions and “persistent weapons or narcotics” misdemeanor convictions would be considered grounds for denying visits.  However, there is no clarity regarding what particular characteristics would be considered threatening, nor is there any demonstrated nexus between how such convictions or pending charges are related to visits and jail safety.  The result is a policy that is wrong-headed and ripe for abuse. For example, individuals with persistent misdemeanor narcotics convictions are often suffering long-term addiction and pose little risk to jail safety or contraband smuggling, but the proposed rules would permit a blanket prohibition on visits for these individuals.

Finally, consideration of previous contact with the criminal justice system will disproportionately impact poor people of color who are more likely to be the subject of discriminatory policing and prosecution.

1-09(h)(3) – (4)

As if the criteria described above were not broad enough, proposed changes to Minimum Standard 1-09(3) and (4) effectively give the Department unbridled discretion to deny visits and restrict contact based on no criteria at all.  The proposed language states that visitation rights may be denied “when such visitation would cause a threat to the safety or security or good order of the facility.” This language is so broad as to be capricious.  Importantly, this particular change would remove from the Minimum Standards any nexus to behavior during visits as a reason for limiting visit rights.  Additionally, language requiring that a threat be “serious” in order to deny visits is removed.  Finally, language requiring the Department to employ less extreme measures before imposing prohibiting visits is deleted.  What is left is complete discretion for the Department to deny visits, and questions about how exactly that discretion will be used. Who determines what is threatening?  Based on what criteria? How will any information used to make such a determination be gathered? When will the determination be made? What does “good order” mean?  All of these questions were asked months ago and yet the revised proposed rules upon which we have been invited to comment answer none of them. The Board should never have initiated rule-making without addressing these concerns, and should reject the rules as drafted now.[17]


Compounding an increase in discretion for the Department, the proposed rules also include unnecessary changes to the appeal system for individuals who are denied visits.  Currently, people who are denied contact visits may appeal directly to the Board.  The proposed addition of an initial appeal through the Department of Correction is nonsensical.  The Department is already responsible for the initial determination – the proposed appeal would simply add two weeks of additional time for the appeal to be reviewed, locking out many who pass through the jails with very short stays. The Board should remain the first level of appeal to guarantee swift and independent review of the Department’s determinations about visits.


We urge the Board to reject the proposed rules related to packages.  The Department has not provided any evidence that packages are a significant source of contraband in the jails. The Department also fails to demonstrate why existing procedures to intercede contraband smuggling through packages are inadequate if followed competently.  The Board should reject the proposal as unnecessary and unfairly burdensome to poor families. The proposed rules change existing standards in two important ways 1) by requiring families to send packages through pre-approved vendors and 2) by restricting outgoing packages from people in city jails.

The vast majority of people on Rikers Island are there before being convicted of any crime because their families cannot afford to pay bail.  The proposed rules would force these same poor families to purchase anew items they already own at home. The Department claims that the cost to families will be mitigated by the use of uniforms, but ignores the need for undergarments, hygiene items, warm layers and other basic necessities for which incarcerated people rely on their loved-ones.  In light of pre-trial detention lasting years in our city, the burden on families will be significant, and cannot be ignored.  Even more disturbing, prison vendors typically charge significant mark-ups, profiteering from the incarceration of poor people around the country.  We ask that the Board reject any proposal that will add New York City to the list of places that participate in this abhorrent practice.

The proposed rules would also permit the Department to restrict outgoing packages from incarcerated people based on a “reasonable belief that limitation is necessary to protect public safety, or maintain facility order and security.”  The Department provides no information about how an outgoing package would pose such a risk and therefore fails to justify the need for this rule change. Moreover, the exceedingly weak “reasonable belief” standard will permit Department staff to arbitrarily deny people’s outgoing packages. In light of these facts, it is clear this standard has little to do with safety, and more to do with the Department’s ability to punish certain people without meaningful oversight.


The proposed rules would reduce already-weak due process standards for people placed in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, and we urge the Board to reject the proposal.  While we believe the intention to return individuals from ESH into less restrictive housing is a good one, we do not believe that this must come at the expense of due process.  Instead, we would argue that the Board should establish more due process standards for ESH placement and review.

Currently, people placed in ESHU receive notice about the reasons for their placement and may submit comments for review contesting their placement, but they do not have a right to counsel or any outside advocacy, and the determination is reviewed by Department staff, not an independent body.  The only way for a person to be released from ESHU is through a poorly-defined review of the individual’s behavior by Department staff every 45 days, essentially providing complete discretion to the Department as to how long someone will remain in ESH. These procedural protections are too weak in light of the significant restrictions placed on people in the unit, including cell confinement 17 hours per day for indeterminate periods.

The proposed rules would only weaken due process protections further by allowing the Department to return an individual to ESH without notice, a hearing, or the right to contest placement. The proposed rule changes fail to delineate the circumstances which would warrant return to the unit.  There is no indication that the return to ESH would necessarily involve violent behavior, gang activity, or be related to any of the criteria used to make the initial placement in ESH. Furthermore, it is unclear who would make the determination that an individual should return to ESH, or if there is any review within the Department regarding that determination.

In light of the indeterminate nature of placements in ESHU, it is especially unjust to facilitate returns to the unit without due process protections.  The Department should be required to demonstrate a clear justification for placement in any restrictive unit based on present behavior, not simply based on an individual’s previous housing. An individual could spend a year in ESH without incident, be released to the population, and then be accused of disrespecting staff. This accusation would not warrant placement in ESH or any type of segregated housing. Under the proposed rules, however, this person would be returned to ESH without any notice or ability to challenge the determination whatsoever.  The proposed changes will do little more than open the door for cyclical placements disconnected from any nexus to present behavior and should be rejected.

The Statement of Basis and Purpose states that this rule change is intended to provide the Department with more flexibility to provide incentives for good behavior, including by transitioning individuals into less restrictive housing.  We support an incentive model in principle; however we do not believe that incentives and due process protections are mutually exclusive.  Additionally, there is no detail provided about what “incentives” are being offered, or about the operations of supposedly “progressively less restrictive” settings.  Based on client reports, the alternative settings they have been offered for release from ESH are typically also quite restrictive – enhanced restraints units, closed custody units, and administrative segregation units with no programming. Our office remains concerned about the opacity with which these units operate.

The ESHU is relatively new and should be monitored and evaluated. The Board should review the ESHU’s effectiveness in reducing violence, lengths of stay for individuals placed there, the quality of the evaluations conducted by the Department, the availability and success of programming and other metrics. There is no reason to weaken due process before the period of review delineated under the sunset provision has ended.  The Board should take seriously its task to review the use and effectiveness of ESHU, particularly in light of inconsistent reports from the Department about what population the unit is intended to house.  If this restrictive unit is not being utilized to complete the mission for which the Board approved its establishment, or if the unit has not been shown effective in reducing violence, the Board should not allow for its continued operation.


The issue of violence on Rikers Island is serious, and warrants serious solutions.  The proposed rules do not rise to the challenge.  There has not been compelling evidence presented to support the need for any of the proposed rule changes.  The proposed expansion of solitary confinement is directly contradictory to the academic literature, expert testimony to the Board, and respect for human dignity – all of which tell us that the practice makes our jails more dangerous and causes irreparable harm. Restrictions on visiting and packages are unnecessary, discriminatory, unjustified, will lead to further isolation of New Yorkers in city jails, and foment violence. The approach to reduce violence should be evidence-based and include increased programming, an end to solitary confinement, and a visiting process that facilitates meaningful contact with families and communities, and respects the rights and dignity of incarcerated people and their loved ones travelling to Rikers Island. Thank you for your consideration of our comments.  Please contact Riley Doyle Evans, Jail Services Coordinator at (347)-768-3017 or rdevans@bds.org with any concerns.




                                                            Lisa Schreibersdorf

                                                            Executive Director


                                                            Riley Doyle Evans

                                                            Jail Services Coordinator

[1] US Dept of Justice, CRIPA Investigation on the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, August 4, 2014, 3, available at: http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao-sdny/legacy/2015/03/25/SDNY%20Rikers%20Report.pdf.

[2] United Nations Economic and Social Counsel, Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), May 2015, Rule 44, available at: http://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CCPCJ/CCPCJ_Sessions/CCPCJ_24/resolutions/L6_Rev1/ECN152015_L6Rev1_e_V1503585.pdf.

[3] Physicians for Human Rights, Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in the US Detention System, 31 (2013). Quoting Stuart Grassian, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, 22 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y, 335-336 (2006)

[4] Vera Institute of Justice, Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives, May 2015, available at: http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/solitary-confinement-misconceptions-safe-alternatives-report_1.pdf.

[5] Testimony of Dr. James Gilligan and Bandy Lee, available at: http://www.nyc.gov/html/boc/downloads/pdf/Variance_Comments/RuleMaking_201412/12-19-14%20Testimony%20for%20BOC%20Hearing.pdf;

[6] New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Kaba et al. Disparities in Mental Health Referral and Diagnosis in the New York City Jail Mental Health Service. American Journal of Public Health, July 2015.

[7] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doc/html/visit-an-inmate/visit-schedule.shtml

[8] New York City Department of Investigation, Commissioner Mark Peters, New York City Department of Investigation Report on Serurity Failures at City Department of Correction Facilities, November 2014.  Available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doi/downloads/pdf/2014/Nov14/pr26rikers_110614.pdf

[9] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/correction-officer-smuggle-knives-rikers-article-1.2373037

[10] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-rosas-settlement-los-angeles-county-jails-20141217-story.html

[11] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-paul-tanaka-career-20150514-story.html

[12] http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-baca-retire-20140107-story.html

[13] Hudson et al. v Dart et al., case no. 2013cv8572 (2013)

[14] http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-comprehensive-cooperative-agreement-cook-county-illinois-board

[15] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens-man-barry-crawford-suing-city-rikers-island-beating-article-1.455501

[16] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/rikers-island-visitor-sues-city-guard-groped-article-1.2390358

[17] It is inadequate for these important procedural questions to be answered after rules have been adopted or in the Department’s internal Directives.  Only the Minimum Standards are legally enforceable, available for review and comment by interested parties and subject to oversight beyond a given administration.



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 Team

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



Keren Farkas, Esq. – Director, Education Unit


Presented before

The City Council’s Committees on Education and General Welfare

“Oversight: DOE’s Support for Students who are Homeless or in Temporary Housing”

February 4, 2016

My name is Keren Farkas and I am the Director of Brooklyn Defender Services’ (BDS) Education Unit. BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council on Education and General Welfare for the opportunity to submit testimony.

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as the public defense office in Brooklyn.  We have developed a model of specialization to best represent certain types of clients, including adolescents.  Through specialized units of the office, we provide extensive wrap-around services that meet the needs of these traditionally under-served clients in a comprehensive way. This includes helping young people and their families navigate the public education bureaucracy during and after contact with the criminal justice and family court system.

BDS’ Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy to our school-age clients. We work with young people impacted by the criminal justice and child welfare systems.  As a legal and social work team, we work to improve our client’s access to education, and a significant portion of our advocacy relates to school discipline, special education, reentry and alternative pathways to graduation.

Our multi-disciplinary staff has witnessed first-hand the trauma and instability often experienced by young people in temporary housing. The transition to temporary housing is characteristically stressful and problematic.   Too often, families are removed from their familiar neighborhood and communities. They are placed in shelters or other temporary living arrangements in boroughs and neighborhoods hours from their accustomed surroundings. Further, shelter conditions can be unclean and lacking. School-age children experience particular hardships.  After placement in temporary housing, their once local and zoned school is only accessible by long and unsustainable commutes. They are faced with the unfair choice between either an unfamiliar nearby school or remaining in their home school but enduring a long, potentially impossible, commute. Meaningful school stability, through a transfer to a shelter close to the child’s home school or school bus transportation, is often only available when a family is working with an advocate. Further, regardless of school choice, these students may experience emotional distress that may manifest in educational or behavioral difficulties, requiring thoughtful and targeted interventions by school staff. Without increased attention, these students are more susceptible to absenteeism, school disengagement and poor academic performance.

Brooklyn Defender Services believes that improved collaboration between the relevant city agencies, namely Department of Education (DOE), Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Human Resources Administration (HRA), is essential to positively impact the educational stability of students in temporary housing.   While each agency has its own dedicated staff to consider McKinney-Vento Act compliance, there is an opportunity to better effectuate the interdependent responsibilities.

The remainder of my testimony will briefly highlight two critical pathways towards increasing school stability for students who are Homeless or in Temporary Housing:

  1. Enhanced Coordination to Place Families Near Home Schools

Increased attention must be given to ensure families are placed in their home borough, near children’s schools, upon initial admission to Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH).  Regularly, our clients contact us after applying to PATH to notify us that they were placed in an unfamiliar borough. Despite informing the staff at PATH that their child’s school is in Brooklyn, they receive a placement in Queens or Manhattan. Among other things, they are worried about how their child will get to school the next day. Where a student has an Individualized Education Program and receives specialized services, this experience can be particularly distressing.  Even if school transportation is offered, our clients question whether an hour long bus ride is appropriate for their young child. While considering school options, students face days or weeks of tardiness and absences, only compounding the problems they endure.

DHS and DOE, along with other relevant agencies, must create a more seamless path towards ensuring families can reside in a shelter close to their children’s school. Although well-meaning, PATH/DHS staff and education liaisons can be discouraging and unhelpful towards effectuating transfers or school transportation.  Parents often do not feel they have any option but to transfer their child to the local school, compromising their school stability.  Through advocacy, BDS can often assist families transfer to shelters near their children’s school. We are hopeful that DHS can create an easier and more transparent process where families can be initially placed or transferred to shelters so children can remain in their original schools.

  1. Accessible and Practical School Transportation to Maintain School Stability

Accessible transportation is a crucial tool towards securing school stability for students in temporary housing. BDS is encouraged by DOE’s efforts to identify bus routes for students in temporary housing to travel to their home schools. However, eligible students remain without school bus transportation. While DOE maintains that a MetroCard satisfies the McKinney-Vento Act’s transportation responsibility, it is often deficient. In New York City, where transportation can involve multiple transfers in all forms of weather, MetroCard’s often only offer impractical and unsustainable options, especially for younger children. Without feasible transportation options, parents often feel their only choice is to transfer their child to the nearby school, disrupting school stability. DHS and DOE, along with other relevant agencies, must create a quicker and more transparent process to secure yellow bus travel for students. While education liaisons typically do help parents apply for transportation, the timeline is often unpredictable. Additionally, parents are not kept informed of the process and potential options.  The agencies should work together to create a transparent policy, including a timeline, to ensure eligible families receive sustainable transportation options so students can remain in their home schools.

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



Kaela Economos

Social Work Supervisor, Family Defense Practice



Keren Farkas

Supervising Attorney, Education and Employment


Presented to

The New York City Department of Education

Regarding: Proposed Amendments to

Chancellor’s Regulation A-210


Chancellor’s Regulation A-750

December 20, 2016

 Dear Chancellor Carmen Farina:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit formal written comments on the proposed amendments to the Regulations of the Chancellor of Education relating to Minimum Standards for Attendance Programs (A-210) and Child Abuse Prevention (A-750).

BDS is a public defender organization that provides inter-disciplinary, holistic, client-centered representation in the areas of criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, for tens of thousands of clients every year. The BDS Family Defense practice represents almost 2,000 respondents in child welfare cases every year and has helped thousands of children remain safely at home with their families or leave foster care and safely reunite with their families.  Our attorneys, social workers and parent advocates are in the field every day interacting directly with the Administration for Children’s Services, foster care agency workers and, when necessary, school personnel.  BDS’ civil attorneys offer collateral support to our clients in the areas of housing, public benefits and education.  Our Education Unit provides legal representation and informal advocacy, largely in the areas of special education and school discipline.  The education attorneys and social workers also work to maintain our clients’ involvement in their child’s education throughout child welfare involvement, including court ordered supervision, removal or reunification.

BDS recognizes the enormity and complexity of the Administration for Children’s Services’ (ACS) charge to protect the safety of children while also working to preserve families. Likewise, we acknowledge that schools are a centerpiece of a child’s life, and school officials have a unique vantage point into the well-being of its students.  In light of recent tragedies, this is understandably a time where ACS wants to reflect on its practices. That said, singling out horrific cases and focusing on increased surveillance of families rarely results in the kind of thoughtful reforms that keep children safe and families strong. We expect that any changes that will come from these amendments will be coupled with intensive and ongoing training to ensure school officials understand that reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or neglect is a prerequisite to any call to the New York State Central Register (SCR), independent of a student’s absences. [1]

While we recognize the worthy intentions of these amendments, we are concerned that, as written, the new guidance may encourage school officials to alert the SCR or ACS in unwarranted situations. We are concerned that the amendments ask school officials to take on CPS-like monitoring responsibilities, which seems inconsistent with the role of a school official. Clearly, strong and trusting relationships between families and school staff are crucial towards supporting a child’s education. The proposed requirements may lead parents, namely Tier 2 parents, to feel scrutinized and untrusted by their child’s school. A breakdown in the parent-school relationship can not only impact the child’s education and stability, but also discourage open communication between parents and the school. This only worsens outcomes for children and families.

We ask that the Chancellor consider the following points in this effort to create a policy that keeps students safe without further reinforcing the vulnerability of families presently or previously involved in the child welfare system.

(1) The Proposed Changes to A-210 and A-750 Improperly Place Functions of ACS onto DOE Staff

The proposed changes to A-210 and A-750 require schools to take on a number of additional tasks and roles.   Some changes expand existing responsibilities. For instance, schools already have attendance programs, including designated coordinators responsible for documenting attendance and reaching out to parents. A-210 and A-750’s recommended changes, however, specify an enhanced and graded monitoring protocol exclusively for families currently or previously involved in the child welfare system.[2] To implement the protocol, schools will receive a monthly list of its child-welfare involved students.[3]

Although we oppose the proposal, if this protocol is implemented, we expect that the monthly list of students will only be shared with staff formally responsible for attendance tracking. School officials may think a family’s current or past ACS involvement indicates issues of abuse even though the vast majority of child welfare cases involve allegations of neglect.[4] In addition, almost all child welfare cases are related to poverty and the stress that poverty brings to families.[5]   However, knowledge of child-welfare involvement may lead school staff to treat these families differently with undue hyper vigilance, leading to lack of trust and breakdown of vital relationship building between teacher and parent. Accordingly, to prevent alienating these families, the information should only be shared with those staff responsible for monitoring attendance.

Presumably, the increased focus on attendance is to verify a child’s whereabouts and safety.  However, A-750’s proposed protocol does not end at checking attendance.  A-750 III.C.3 also asks schools to conduct ongoing monitoring of child-welfare involved students.  We recognize that, as mandated reporters, school officials are required to report suspected abuse or neglect of children when presented with reasonable cause to suspect. However, the mandated reporter role does not have a monitoring or investigatory component.  The proposed amendment to A-750 imparts a new function on school staff by requiring school leadership to  “assign a school-based point” to students in all Tiers who must “make regular inquiries of classroom teachers and the school health office and update the ILOG records of these students with pertinent information about school progress or issues that arise.”

A-750’s proposed request for targeted monitoring is troubling. Monitoring a family seems at odds with educating a child.  Monitoring and investigating a child’s welfare is solely under the purview of ACS. Moreover, ACS is only allowed to engage in those functions when specific legal requirements are met.  The proposed monitoring is seemingly asking DOE to take on an ACS function.  Schools are a separate entity from ACS, and their functions should reflect that. Confusing the roles could compromise open school cultures between staff and families, while also potentially leading to unnecessary and harmful interventions for poor families.

We also want to note that DOE’s proposed new functions are, in part, duplicative of the responsibilities of ACS and foster care agency caseworkers. When families are under ACS supervision, caseworkers are already required to monitor a child’s education and progress. At many junctures, including conferences and court appearances, the caseworker is expected to provide updated information on school matters. We understand that this responsibility has typically been executed in collaboration with the DOE. Likewise, we acknowledge that caseworkers sometimes fall short of this responsibility. The proposed protocol, however, seems to be putting the onus of the responsibility on DOE, rather than putting the emphasis on improving ACS’ training and accountability.


  • ACS and DOE should only share the list of ACS-involved students with staff responsible for monitoring attendance. Strict procedures should be implemented to ensure the information is otherwise kept confidential.
  • The proposed change, A-750 III.C.3, requiring ongoing monitoring, should be removed.
  • ACS and DOE should provide comprehensive training to DOE staff to understand the general trajectory of an ACS case and the ramifications of a call to the SCR. Beyond the general training, DOE staff should be instructed about the complexities of ACS involvement from parents involved in ACS proceeding.

(2) The proposed changes to A-210 and A-750 could result in an unlawful extension of supervision over families with closed cases, potentially resulting in unnecessary ACS involvement

A-750’s new “Policies and Procedures for Escalating Absence Concerns Regarding Students Involved with the Administration for Children’s Services” requests oversight over families no longer involved with ACS. Specifically, Tier II includes families who were “the subject of an ACS investigation” that was substantiated within the current or prior school year. [6] From the day they receive the case, ACS has 60 days to complete an investigation.  At the conclusion of the investigation, ACS determines whether the allegations are indicated or unfounded. If the allegations are substantiated, ACS may file a court case, offer voluntary preventive services, or close the case. A court order is the only avenue to extend supervision against a family’s consent.

All Tier 2 families have closed ACS cases. The cases are closed because there was no indication or legal basis to keep them open. The families are then no longer subject to involuntary supervision from ACS or, presumably, any city agency. By including Tier 2 families in the tiered response protocol, however, school officials are essentially being asked to continue supervision of these families without cause, which is inappropriate. Although we recognize that school officials are mandated reporters, the inclusion of Tier 2 families in the protocol unnecessarily takes school officials beyond that role.

We fear the implications of this policy because it puts a mark on families who, presumably, already cooperated with ACS, engaged in services, or otherwise merited discontinued ACS involvement regardless of what’s happening with the family. This monitoring also stigmatizes the family. Neither DOE nor ACS has put forward evidence that these families are more likely to abuse or neglect their children in the future. The policy’s design, however, has the capacity to alienate these families and build distrust between schools, its families and its students. At the extreme, we are also concerned it will lead to repeated and unnecessary ACS involvement.


  • Families who are no longer under involuntary ACS supervision, or Tier 2 Families, should not be included in the proposed protocol under Chancellor’s Regulation A-750 § III.

(3) Proposed Amendments to A-210 and A-750 may lead to an influx of SCR calls

Mandated reporters are required to call the SCR whenever there is reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or maltreatment.  While A-750 refers to the reasonable cause standard, the language and framing of the protocol will likely confuse a lay person as to whether reasonable cause remains the threshold requirement to call the SCR. Further, because the proposed changes single out child-welfare involved families, it calls to reason that schools will apply increased vigilance and suspicion over these families, leading to more calls to the SCR.

An influx of unwarranted calls to the SCR can have detrimental impacts on the overall system and individual families.  More calls to SCR do not necessarily enhance child safety. Rather, it can backlog the already overburdened system, depriving those families most in need of attention and support.  For the individual family, it can result in unnecessary and potentially harmful intervention. It may also lead to a breakdown in the relationship between the family and the school.

Needless to say, this policy will also disparately impact families of color. Racial disparities in the child welfare system are well documented. Implicit bias in mandated reporting results in over reporting of families of color to ACS for suspected abuse or neglect.[7] This phenomenon occurs without any evidence to suggest that children of color are more likely to be abused or neglected. Implicit bias at the point of referral, investigation and substantiation is already a problem plaguing our child welfare system.[8]  Accordingly, if school personnel are being asked to conduct more in depth monitoring of students, beyond their role as mandated reporters, and fulfill the policy’s protocol, DOE and ACS should provide the necessary bias training to prevent disparate impact on families of color. For instance, DOE staff should be required to attend training around implicit bias and cultural competency to help minimize the potential of racial bias in reporting and monitoring of families.

After calling the SCR or identifying an attendance issue, the tiered response protocol and A-750 III.D. also instructs DOE to reach out to the appropriate ACS entity.[9] In several instances, the protocol directs DOE and ACS to convene meetings. For instance, if DOE calls the SCR regarding a Tier 1 family, ACS is directed to conduct a safety assessment and possibly a school conference.[10] Given that these families may have existing court cases, the protocol should require ACS to contact the parent’s attorney and other attorneys on the matter before scheduling a conference in these cases. For Tier 3 families, the protocol also suggests that case planners schedule a meeting with the school to address the child’s absences.[11] As these children are in foster care, we ask that case planners notify the parents of any school meetings to ensure their involvement in educational decision-making.

The tiered response protocol also appears to ask schools to contact ACS when the reasonable cause standard is not met.  For instance, even when schools are satisfied with a family’s explanation for a child’s absence, the protocol instructs schools to contact ACS when they believe “further intervention and coordination with ACS would address the reasons for absence.”[12] This guidance applies to families without active ACS involvement. Specifically, for Tier 2 families, it directs schools to contact ACS’ Office of Education Support and Policy Planning.[13] Then, ACS is instructed to work with the school to determine whether there is an open preventive services case and, if not, whether it is feasible to call the SCR. ACS will also coach schools on what information to provide to the SCR.[14]

There are certainly scenarios where well-meaning school officials want to involve ACS to help a family get support. We recommend that any such decision, however, be made in collaboration with the family. Preventive services are indeed a valuable way to connect families with services so that ACS involvement is unnecessary. However, preventive services are most effective when they remain voluntary and community based.  Schools should be connected with community-based organizations that provide families with support. Additionally, they should only be utilized when there is a palpable way that the agency could support the family. When the reasonable cause standard is not met, schools should not be encouraged to reach out to ACS without consulting the family first.

An overreliance on preventive services- often only to provide additional monitoring of families- has caused major backlogs and delays in families receiving preventive services whether mandated or voluntary.  This clogged pipeline makes it even more difficult for families who really need and want preventive services to get them. We have testified extensively about preventive services before the New York City Council. The testimonies can be found online at http://bds.org/bds-family-defense-social-work-supervisor-kaela-economos-testifies-before-the-new-york-city-council-committee-on-general-welfare-on-preventive-services/ and at http://bds.org/wp-content/uploads/3.17.15-NYC-Council-Committee-on-General-Welfare-Testimony.pdf.


  • ACS and DOE should provide comprehensive training to DOE staff to understand the required standards for calling the SCR, as well as implicit bias and cultural competency.
  • When the reasonable cause standard is not met, DOE staff should be required to consult with families and get consent before contacting ACS.


While we understand DOE’s and ACS’ earnest intention with in developing this policy, we have questions about its likely implications. Specifically, we are concerned that it is overreaching and could lead to unnecessary intrusions into the lives of poor families, without having a palpable impact on the safety of children in New York City.  We hope the DOE will consider our suggestions in finalizing the language of Chancellor’s Regulations A-750 and A-210.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to Keren Farkas, Supervising Attorney, at kfarkas@bds.org or (718) 254-0700, or Kaela Economos, Social Work Supervisor at keconomos@bds.org or (347) 592-2554 with any questions.


[1] New York Social Services Law § 413.

[2] Chancellor’s Regulation A-210 § III.D; Chancellor’s Regulation A-750 § III.

[3] Chancellor’s Regulation A-750 § III.

[4] New York City, Keeping Track Online: The Status of New York City Children (2013), available at http://data.cccnewyork.org/profile/location/1/city#1/new-york-city/1/1193,1194/a/a.

[5] Id.

[6] Chancellor’s Regulation A-750 § III.B.2(b).

[7] Jina Lee, et al., “Implicit Bias in the Child Welfare, Education and Mental Health Systems,” Nat’l Center for Youth Law [2-5]

[8] Id.

[9] Although not included in the proposed changes Chancellor’s Regulation A-750 or Chancellor’s A-210, this guidance is included in the ACS and DOE October 29, 2016 “Joint Statement Introducing a Tiered Response Protocol for High-Risk Cases of Educational Neglect and Unexplained Absence,” disseminated to all ACS and DOE staff.

[10] See “Joint Statement Introducing a Tiered Response Protocol for High-Risk Cases of Educational Neglect and Unexplained Absence,” Commissioner, NYC ACS & Chancellor, NYC DOE, III.E.ii.c.i (October 29, 2016)

[11] Id. III.E.vi.

[12] Id. III.B.iv.b.

[13] Id. III.E.iii.

[14] Id. III.E.iii.b.



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



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.




Keren Farkas, Esq. – Supervising Attorney


Presented before

The New York City Commission on Human Rights

Public Hearing on Fair Chance Act Proposed Rules

March 21, 2016

My name is Keren Farkas and I am a Supervising Attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy for 45,000 clients in Brooklyn ever year.

We thank the New York City Commission on Human Rights for the opportunity to testify about the proposed rules implementing the new requirements of the Fair Chance Act. At Brooklyn Defender Services, we believe the legislation is incredibly significant with tremendous potential to level the employment playing field for our clients. In the short time since its enactment, we have already seen its impact on employer hiring practices and the opportunity for our clients to be fairly considered for job opportunities.

As an illustration, I would like to highlight our client’s recent path to employment as a train operator for the MTA New York City Transit:

Krystal was arrested for an alleged altercation between her and a neighbor in a NYCHA housing complex. She was charged with misdemeanor assault based on allegations that were exaggerated and a misrepresentation of what actually occurred.  Krystal’s assigned criminal defense attorney was confident that the case would ultimately get dismissed but, due to typical court delays, it would likely take some time.

Several weeks after Krystal was arraigned on the charges, she was invited for an interview with the MTA for a train operator position.  She was very excited about the opportunity, but also worried that the pending case would frustrate her chances for employment.  However, because the MTA is following the new requirements created by the Fair Chance Act, Krystal was not asked about her arrest or conviction history during her initial interviews. Rather, she was only assessed based on her qualifications. She performed well and received a conditional offer letter. She was then invited for a second round assessment which, among other things, included a criminal history check. Fortunately, her BDS criminal defense attorney successfully resolved her case with immediate sealing prior to Krystal’s second round interview. Krystal has now been working as a train operator for three weeks. But for the Fair Chance Act, she may have missed that opportunity.

We commend the NYC Commission on Human Rights for proposing rules to facilitate uniform and fair application of the Fair Chance Act. We have signed on to the written comments submitted by the Coalition of Reentry Advocates (CoRA) and share their recommendations for additional guidance and clarification to enhance understanding of the Act amongst employers, employees and advocates. We believe the rules will significantly inform compliance, but want to emphasize that regular and targeted trainings for employers and employees alike are a necessary piece to ensuring the Fair Chance Act reaches its potential.

For the remainder of this testimony, I would like to briefly draw attention to several areas of the proposed rules of particular interest to BDS’ client population:

  • Application to Pending Cases – We strongly support the clarity the rules bring to the breadth of the Fair Chance Act’s application. The added definitions and consistent language throughout Section 2-04 elucidate that the Fair Chance Act protections extend to individuals facing pending charges. We believe this clarification will finally ensure that individuals who have not been found guilty of any crime, like Krystal, will receive fair consideration by employers before any inquiries into present or previous criminal cases. Notably, it will protect our clients who have unsealed Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissals and, previously, had been excluded from Article 23-A protections and experienced unnecessary barriers to stable employment.
  • Including unsealed violations in the definition of “criminal history” – Similarly, we share in CoRA’s recommendation to include unsealed violations within the definition of “criminal history.” Clients who have pled to non-criminal convictions with a sentence of Conditional Discharge may face confusion or resistance from employers. The explicit inclusion of “unsealed violations” in the definition of criminal history would ensure those clients are also protected by the Fair Chance Act. Because these are non-criminal convictions, however, we ask that an educational note be included in the rules to ensure employers understand the distinction between violations and misdemeanors and felonies.
  • Application to Current Employees – Another clarification provided in Section 2-04(5) we would like to highlight is the Act’s application to current employees when facing pending charges or convictions. In our office, we frequently hear from clients who have been suspended or terminated from their job due to an arrest or conviction. The employer’s decisions often seem mechanical, without regard to the particular charges, job duties, the client’s professional history or any consideration comparable to the Article 23-A analysis. As a result, we have sadly seen numerous clients lose employment and financial stability due to completely attenuated circumstances. Now, with the protections and transparent procedures clarified in the rules, particularly Section 2-04(5), these individuals will receive an Article 23-A analysis and be spared unwarranted loss of employment. Further, they will finally have an available recourse and remedy when employers take unjustified adverse action.
  • Clarification regarding FCA’s application to statutorily mandated background checks – A significant portion of our employed clients work in positions and have licenses where state, federal or local law require criminal background checks and dictate disqualifying convictions. While FCA clearly exempts those employers from following FCA when it directly conflicts with such laws, there are many circumstances that do not directly conflict, and the employers should be held to the Fair Chance Process. For instance, we recently had a client who was suspended from his position as a building service aide at a nursing home upon being arrested for Driving While Intoxicated. We believe the language of the Fair Chance Act did not exempt his employers from abiding by the Fair Chance Process when considering the new arrest, and he was entitled to an Article 23-A analysis before they took adverse action. We ask that the rules clarify the limitations of the exemption for these employers to ensure that individuals, like our client, receive the FCA protections when appropriate.
  • Fair Chance Process: We appreciate the clarity provided around the “Fair Chance Process,” and also share CoRA’s recommendation for improvement. The standardized forms and required paper trail will ensure that applicants are privy to an employer’s decision-making process and can knowingly determine whether the employer engaged in an actionable discriminatory employment practice. We share CoRA’s recommendation that an employer should share responsibility to both obtain information to conduct a thorough Article 23-A analysis and address suspected RAP sheet errors. While we are encouraged by the explicit requirements that employers provide applicants with reasonable time to address an employer’s concerns, we are concerned that, in many cases, three days will be insufficient. Accordingly, we strongly share CoRA’s recommendation that the timeframe be extended, especially when suspected rap sheet errors are the concern.

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



Kathrine Russell – Immigrant Youth and Community Project Team Leader


Amy Albert – Adolescent Representation Team Coordinator


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Immigration

Oversight Hearing on

Resources Available in New York City for Unaccompanied Minors

December 9, 2015

My name is Kathrine Russell. I am a practicing immigration attorney and the Immigrant Youth and Communities Project Team Leader at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). I testify today along with my colleague Amy Albert, a criminal defense attorney at BDS and the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team Coordinator. BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. We thank the City Council Committee on Immigration for the opportunity to testify about resources available to immigrant youth in New York City.

Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 6,500 immigrant clients.  In 2014 alone, we handled 1,273 immigration matters across a full spectrum of services. 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 generous funding support from City Council, our Immigrant Youth and Communities Project has represented more than 450 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.

Our Immigrant Youth and Communities Project clients take advantage of BDS’s multi-disciplinary defense services, including our Adolescent Representation Team, our civil justice project, our education advocacy team, youth social workers and youth advocates.

BDS’s integrated Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team (BART) is comprised of criminal defense and immigration attorneys and other advocates working together to understand the myriad issues unique to adolescents (21 years of age and under) and provide services that meet their needs. BART clients may take advantage of education advocacy services provided by our two dedicated education attorneys and education social worker. We also have youth advocates who serve as mentors to our young clients, escorting them to court and to appointments and checking up on them regarding school and program attendance. Our specialized BART social work team is dedicated to the issues facing young people who are arrested, including mental health issues, trauma, and addiction. BART clients with immigration issues may also take advantage of our civil justice project and access housing, benefit and other civil legal services.

BDS is grateful to City Council for its generous support of youth and immigrant families in New York City. Our experience shows that defender offices are in a unique position to connect clients from criminal, immigration, and family court cases to ensure better outcomes for our clients and their communities. However, we believe there is still more work to be done that requires the assistance of City Council.

The following true story of a BDS client is illustrative of the challenges that our young clients face:

“Anabel” is a 16-year-old young woman from Trinidad who has lived in the United States off and on since she was seven years old.  Most recently, in 2014, Anabel came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied child, seeking to escape severe violence in the community where she and her mother had been living in Trinidad.  Unfortunately, the visa that Anabel used at the airport was expired, and Anabel was apprehended, detained, and placed into immigration removal proceedings.  She was eventually released from custody to the care of her aunt and uncle in Canarsie, and BDS assumed representation of Anabel in her removal proceedings following a referral from Kids in Need of Defense (“KIND”).  BDS identified Anabel as eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status due to abandonment and neglect by her father in Trinidad. When Anabel’s relationship with her aunt later deteriorated, BDS met with Anabel who expressed a desire to move in with a friend of her mother’s in Flatbush. Unfortunately, that relationship also deteriorated quickly after a dispute over photos that Anabel posted on Facebook.  In fact, it deteriorated so quickly that I, as Anabel’s attorney, was put in the position of trying to find an immediate home for Anabel, who was then still just 15 years old.  Fortunately Anabel had another family member in Brooklyn who was willing to take her in, but Anabel had no one willing to help her move.  At 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night, I accompanied Anabel to the home of her former caretaker, loaded and paid for a van to help her transport her belongings, and helped her move into the home where she is now staying.  I am now planning to represent Anabel in family court so that this other family member may seek guardianship of Anabel, but I am very concerned that Anabel may experience homelessness again very soon.  Additionally, when Anabel started having problems at school following two assaults by her classmates that resulted in a concussion, BDS arranged for one of its own education attorneys to speak with Anabel about her options regarding school safety transfers.  BDS also submitted a request to the Kings County District Attorney’s Office for certification for a U-visa based on the assault.  Further, because of the instability that Anabel has experienced in the U.S., BDS referred Anabel to the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which recently appointed a “child advocate” to meet regularly with Anabel to assess her best interests.  BDS will continue to represent Anabel throughout her immigration removal proceedings and until she receives lawful status in the U.S. and to make referrals for services as necessary.

Anabel’s story is not atypical for our clients. Perhaps what is most troubling about her story is that it highlights a reoccurring issue for our youth clients: persistent homelessness.

1. Fully fund Runaway and Homeless Youth crisis shelter beds in every borough, particularly in Brooklyn

Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges that our young immigration clients face.[i] Immigrant youth are particularly vulnerable to homelessness after cultural clashes with their families, as illustrated in Anabel’s case in the repeated disputes with family members about facebook posts. When youth are kicked out of the home they have very few options because many are unprepared to live independently, have limited education and no social support. These realities are particularly salient for recent immigrants.

There is a severe need for shelter options for adolescents in New York City. The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) runs a range of services for Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY), including short-term crisis shelters which house youth for up to 30 days, with the opportunity to extend for an additional 30 days. DYCD also funds Transitional Independent Living (TIL) housing. TILs provide housing for up to 18 months to RHY ages 16 to 20 and any dependent children, with a possible 6-months extension granted by DYCD. The City fails to provide either sufficient crisis shelter beds or TIL housing.

Brooklyn currently has zero crisis shelter beds for teens like Anabel. DYCD funds only two crisis shelters that serve all youth under 21, Covenant House and Safe Horizon Streetworks Overnight, both in Manhattan. Covenant House, near Times Square, is the largest and has about 200 shelter beds and another 140 spots for longer-term residential stays. The shelter serves youth age 16-21 and turns away about 75 people a month.[ii] Safe Horizon, located in Harlem, offers only 24 beds. There are other limited crisis shelter options for LGBTQ youth, victims of sex trafficking, and pregnant and parenting young mothers.[iii] Unfortunately, the majority of our immigrant youth clients do not meet these criteria.

Instead, too many of BDS’s young clients live in the streets, “couch surf” or sleep on the floors or couches of friends, neighbors or even strangers. Indeed, homeless youth are more likely to be arrested, engage in criminal activity to meet their survival needs, or engage in unsafe sexual relationships or the commercial sex trade because they need a place to sleep. A 2013 study by Covenant House and Fordham University found that 1 in 4 of the surveyed homeless youth became a victim of sex trafficking or was forced to provide sex for survival needs, such as food or a place to sleep. Of these young people, about half reported that the number one reason they had been drawn into commercial sexual activity was because they did not have a safe place to sleep. The City must do better to provide safe shelter space for youth in the communities that they live in so that they do not end up in these situations.

We urge the members of the Committee on Immigration to work with your colleagues at City Council to address the youth homeless crisis by establishing and funding crisis beds in all of the five boroughs, especially Brooklyn.

2. Eliminate barriers to the use of the Destitute Child Act

In 2012, New York State passed the Destitute Child Act, which amended the Family Court Act and Social Services Law to define a destitute child as:

  • A child who is under the age of 18 years and absent from his or her legal residence without the consent of his or her parent(s), legal guardian(s) or custodian(s); or
  • A child under the age of 18 who is without a place of shelter where supervision and care are available, who is not otherwise covered under §371(3)(a) of SSL; or
  • A person who is a former foster care youth under the age of 21 who was previously placed in the care and custody or custody and guardianship of a local commissioner of social services or other entity authorized to receive children as public charges, and who was discharged from foster care due to a failure to consent to the continuation in placement, who has returned to foster care pursuant to §1091 of the FCA

The Destitute Child Act is a critical tool in supporting our homeless youth clients, making them eligible for funding and foster care services without a finding of neglect or abuse. Indeed, the Office of Children and Family Services indicates that unaccompanied minors fall within the definition of a destitute child and local departments of social services are directed to serve such children accordingly.[iv]

3. Increase funding for RHY Drop-in Centers

RHY drop-in centers are an invaluable resource for our young immigrant clients. We send many of our clients to these centers to access mental health counseling, health care, GED and ESL classes, and creative arts activities. Drop-in centers are also a way for youth to begin the intake process for the RHY shelter system.

Young people and their families are invaluably served when a youth has a safe place to stay while both sides take time to cool off after a disagreement. Many of these youth need never become homeless in the first instance if they can take time off away from one another in a safe environment, access services and find a supportive environment. Our City’s drop-in centers already do this work extremely well despite insufficient funding from the City and State.

We urge the members of the Committee on Immigration to work with your colleagues at City Council, the State legislature, Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) service providers, DYCD and other stakeholders like BDS to fully fund drop-in centers in all of the five boroughs so that they may be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

4. Continue funding social workers in cases involving immigrant youth

BDS immigration clients are fortunate in that they are able to take advantage of in-house social work services from our criminal, family, adolescent and civil practice areas.  BDS’s social work team place our immigrant and non-immigrant clients alike in a wide variety of programs in the local area, endeavoring to identify the best services for each client, taking into account his or her specific background and needs.[v]

We hope that City Council will continue to fund social work positions and will consider expanding funding to ensure that every immigrant youth in the City can access the services that will ensure a successful transition to life in this country. 


BDS is grateful to City Council for the important steps that it has taken to support immigrant youth and families. However, there are more areas where City Council can take action.

To that end, BDS recommends that City Council:

1. Fully fund Runaway and Homeless Youth crisis shelter beds in every borough, particularly in Brooklyn

2. Explore how to eliminate barriers to the use of the Destitute Child Act

3. Increase funding for RHY drop-in centers

4. Continue funding in-house social workers at legal services and defender offices to connect immigrant youth with existing community and city services.

Thank you for your time and consideration of these important issues.


[i] See, e.g., Meribah Knight, Far From Family, Alone, Homeless and Still Just 18, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/us/of-young-immigrants-who-arrive-alone-many-end-up-homeless-in-chicago.html.

[ii] Mireya Navarro, “Housing homeless youth poses challenge for Mayor Bill de Blasio,” NY Times, March 27, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/28/nyregion/housing-homeless-youth-poses-challenge-for-mayor-de-blasio.html.

[iii] Ali Forney has 32 crisis shelter beds for youth who identify as LGBTQ in Brooklyn, Covenant House has 22 mother and child beds at West 52nd St in Manhattan, and Inwood House in the Bronx has 8 beds for young women.

[iv] New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Administrative Directive: Destitute Child Placement Procedures and Guidelines, Sept. 19, 2012, available at http://ocfs.ny.gov/main/policies/external/OCFS_2012/ADMs/12-OCFS-ADM-08%20Destitute%20Child%20Placement%20Procedures%20and%20Guidelines.pdf.

[v] An indicative list of partners who have recently provided services—health care, mental health services, child care, housing, education assistance, and more—to our clients is presented below:

(click image to zoom in)

services table




Kelsey de Avila, MSW – Jail Services Social Worker
Presented before the New York City Board of Correction
October 13, 2015

Good morning.  My name is Kelsey De Avila and I’m a social worker with Brooklyn Defender Services.  I’m here today to discuss issues related to DOC uniforms.

I visit with clients every week and it’s every week, especially this past month that I’m told they either only have one uniform set and/or they aren’t being provided laundry services as is required in the minimum standards: (1) Laundry service sufficient to provide prisoners with a clean change of personal or facility clothing at least twice per week shall be provided at Department expense.   There are multiple reports of people cleaning their uniforms in the sink with a bar of soap they buy from commissary.  These same people report that DOC staff does not and have not been stopping by their housing unit to pick up uniforms for laundry service.  Due to the unreliability and fear of uniforms going missing, many clients tend to write their name on the inside of their uniform.  They are now be given tickets for writing their own name inside their uniform.

I have a client who has been at incarcerated at Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island for 4 weeks now.  To this day, she still only has one uniform.  She’s asked her housing officer many times and is repeatedly told they don’t have any more.  I myself ask officers in the counsel area if they could call down, but am told that’s not their job.  My client washes her uniform in the sink and lays it by her bed to dry.  It’s getting cold, but she continues to wait in her underwear in a dorm until her uniform is dry enough to wear.   She has come down to the counsel room in wet pants because she had no other choice.  This is a health and sanitation issue and if DOC is going to move forward with distributing uniforms to all facilities then responsibility needs to be taken.  DOC staff needs to ensure that minimum standards are being met and people are treated with dignity.


I’d like to share with you all two examples our clients faced earlier this month when going to trial.

Example 1

Last week, I received a call from a client stating that her only set of court clothes were taken to property even though she had a set trial date that Wednesday.  My client advocated for herself and tried to explain to her officers that she was indeed starting trial the next day and needed to have her court clothes returned.  Unfortunately, the officers did not believe her and told her to contact her lawyer.  After she contacted our office, we called the general officer at the jail and were told that they would not make an effort to provide her her clothes, they told us “the court has to tell us about the trial date” – but because it was a family court trial, the system did not reflect a trial date.

We were calling to alert the jail that her court date the next day was indeed a trial date.   We were told and I quote: “you’re wasting my time, that’s not my job.”  On the day of her trial and I went to court early that morning and brought three sets of clothes from my own closet in the hopes that something would fit her.  DOC left her legal team completely in the dark and it wasn’t until we saw her in the courthouse that we were able to confirm.  We assume she came to court in her clothing only because we were able to locate and speak with a captain at custody management.   Though we’re grateful our client was able to advocate for herself, we should not have been put in a situation where we did not know if she would be dressed or not.

Example 2

Two weeks ago, I needed to bring court clothes to Rikers for a BDS client.  He didn’t have family that was able to bring him a suit so our office provided one.  His trial date was on a Monday and though DOC allows us to bring court clothes 24 hours in advance, it was going to be difficult to bring him clothes on a Sunday.  We called DOC general office at the jail and were told that if I dropped off the clothes Friday through the Central Visit Building, he would get them in time and there shouldn’t be a problem.   I went to Rikers the next day, Friday, going off on their word.  I waited over an hour in the visit line with other family members and visitors.  Some waiting much longer to see their loved one, others picking up property, dropping off clothes and some sending money.  I waited in line like everyone else.  Once I got through the magnetometer I was told to wait in line again to speak with an officer.

I introduced myself as staff from Brooklyn Defender Services and that I needed to drop off court clothes for a client who has trial that coming Monday.  The officer told me that I can leave the clothes, but he wouldn’t get them in time for Monday’s trial date.  We continued to go back and forth and I explained that I had called ahead and was told this wouldn’t be an issue.  An officer came by to help, but when I told her my situation she responded with, “well that jail does their own thing and we do our own thing”.  The first officer that was assisting me decided to call the jail and made a special arrangement for someone to pick up the clothes that day.  She reminded me though that this is not regular procedure. Despite all our effort, he never got the clothes.  He appeared in court for trial in a uniform, our office had to scramble clothing together and court staff kept it in the courtroom for him to change.


My point is, court clothes, trial dates should not be a guessing game.  We shouldn’t have to cross our fingers and hope that our clients are present and dressed when appearing in front of the judge.  I’m deeply concerned for how DOC staff handled both of these situations.  In this case, DOC’s primary responsibility was to facilitate people coming to court appropriately.  Court clothing is an essential part of fulfilling that responsibility when in fact it is their job.  With all due respect, the issues with uniforms speak to a larger problem within the Department of carrying out major changes without considering the possible consequences for incarcerated people, or setting up the mechanisms to ensure that their rights will be protected.

At Brooklyn Defender Services, we represent about 10% of the people in the city and about 100 of our clients per month are released from court, much of the time as a result of time-served pleas we could not anticipate because the offer was made in court by the judge or DA.  Those clients have been and will continue to be released from court in DOC jumpsuits.  This is incredibly dehumanizing, stigmatizing, and discriminatory.  The uniforms may not have DOC written of them, but it is not a reasonable solution for these people to pretend that they are janitors or hospital workers.

We heard today that DOC will have street clothes available, but right now, as we sit here, they don’t and people are being released in institutional uniforms.  The simple matter is you can’t roll out something of this magnitude and not think through the consequences.

I urge the board to question and review DOC’s policy on uniforms for all incarcerated people going to court.  A trial date, criminal, family or a hearing should have no bearing on limiting a person to dress in the most humanizing and professional way.

Thank you for your time.


Amy Albert – Criminal Defense Practice
Presented before The New York City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice
Oversight Hearing on Examining ACS’s Juvenile Offender Population
September 25, 2015

My name is Amy Albert and I am a staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Our organization provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice, and in particular Chairperson Fernando Cabrera, for the opportunity to testify on Juvenile Offenders in New York City.

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as the public defense office in Brooklyn for people who have been arrested, are facing child welfare allegations and are facing deportation. We have developed a model of specialization to best represent certain types of clients, including adolescents, people with mental illness, and victims of human trafficking. Through specialized units of the office, we provide extensive wrap-around services that meet the needs of these traditionally under-served clients in a comprehensive way.

We are grateful for the opportunity to speak today about ways that the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) can better serve New York City youth charged with or convicted of Juvenile Offender (JO) offenses. I currently represent a full caseload of adolescents, ages 13-21, in Kings County Criminal and Supreme Court. I am also the Coordinator of the Brooklyn Adolescent Representation Team (BART), Brooklyn Defender Services’ specialized adolescent unit. Our team represents over two thousand adolescents ages 13-21 annually. In the past five years the BDS Adolescent Representation team has represented over 150 youth ages 13-15 charged with JO offenses.

Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges that our clients face and is often either a cause of or the unintended result of a young person being charged with a JO offense. We make the following recommendations based on our experience representing youth charged and convicted of JO offenses in Brooklyn:

  • Establish and fund crisis shelter housing for youth in every borough of the City
  • Establish and fund short-term respite centers for youth and families
  • Ensure that every ACS employee receive training specific to the needs of youth charged with or convicted of JO offenses

Youth Homelessness in New York City

I represented a young man, Jayquan, who was arrested on charges of Robbery in the First Degree at the age of 15. Jayquan was charged as an adult; indicted and served approximately eight months at Crossroads before being released and returned to his family. When he was arrested, Jayquan was in ninth grade in a neighborhood high school and involved in a local crew (not as formal as a gang, but an association of youth nonetheless). When he returned home, he had earned a few more credits but would have to repeat the ninth grade again. His crew was fighting with another group of kids and both groups attended the high school to which he returned. He had lived away from his mother and siblings for many months. His mother reported that he was distant, sullen and became defensive if anyone touched him. He had angry outbursts more frequently than ever before. Within two months of his release, Jayquan was begging his mother to transfer schools because of the tension between his crew and the rival crew. Jayquan and his mom weren’t communicating well. She refused. They began arguing. The argument escalated into a physical fight. Jayquan’s mother locked him out of the house. Jayquan had nowhere to go. He tried Covenant House, but the shelter was full. Covenant House called ACS. A caseworker went out to the home and mom agreed to take Jayquan back in. This worked for a few days and then they began fighting again. This time the argument escalated and Jayquan’s mother called the police. Jayquan was arrested for a misdemeanor assault. He was back in front of the Court where the judge issued an Order of Protection preventing Jayquan from returning to his mother’s home. He had no place to go.

One of the greatest crises facing youth charged with or convicted of Juvenile Offender crimes is homelessness. When the young person returns home after a period of incarceration, the trauma that he experienced while locked up may create tension in the family and community, often leading to intra-family disputes. According to Covenant House, 50% of adolescents aging out of foster care and the juvenile and criminal justice systems will be homeless within six months. When youth are kicked out of the home they have very few options because many are unprepared to live independently, have limited education and no social support.

There is a severe need for shelter options for adolescents in New York City. The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) runs a range of services for Runaway and Homeless Youth. Unfortunately, DYCD only has two crisis shelters that serve all youth under 21, Covenant House and Safe Horizon Streetworks Overnight, both in Manhattan. Covenant House, near Times Square, is the largest and has about 200 shelter beds and another 140 spots for longer-term residential stays. The shelter serves youth age 16-21 and turns away about 75 people a month. Safe Horizon, located in Harlem, offers only 24 beds. There are other limited crisis shelter options for LGBTQ youth, victims of sex trafficking, and pregnant and parenting young mothers. Unfortunately, the majority of our JO clients are teenage boys of color who do not meet these criteria. Drop-in centers exist in all of the five boroughs but do not provide short-term emergency housing to accommodate youth like Jayquan.

Right now, too many of our clients live in the streets, “couch surf” or sleep on the floors or couches of friends, neighbors or even strangers. Indeed, homeless youth are more likely to be arrested, engage in criminal activity to meet their survival needs, or engage in unsafe sexual relationships or the commercial sex trade because they need a place to sleep. A 2013 study by Covenant House and Fordham University found that 1 in 4 of the surveyed homeless youth became a victim of sex trafficking or was forced to provide sex for survival needs, such as food or a place to sleep. Of these victims, about half reported that the number one reason they had been drawn into commercial sexual activity was because they did not have a safe place to sleep.

New York City’s youth homeless crisis places an enormous burden on ACS to house youth in the foster care system. Even if a young person is taken into ACS custody, because of overcrowding at the Children’s Center, some adolescents are currently being housed on Long Island away from their friends, families and schools until appropriate group or foster homes can be found. As this Committee is well aware, those group and foster homes are in short supply. Older teens may end up staying weeks or months at the Children’s Center because it is so hard to find foster homes for them.

The City must do better to provide safe shelter space for youth in the communities that they live in so that they do not end up in these situations. We urge the members of the Committee on Juvenile Justice to work with your colleagues at City Council to address the youth homeless crisis by establishing and funding crisis shelters in all of the five boroughs. You should also increase funding to the Children’s Center to ensure that youth identified by ACS can remain in their communities.

Respite Centers as a Haven for Families in Crisis

Young people and their families could be invaluably served if youth had a safe place to stay while both sides had time to cool off after a disagreement. Many of these youth need never become homeless in the first instance if they and their families have a neutral, safe place to go where they can mediate their differences, figure out a family member that the youth can stay with, or collaborate with a case manager about long-term placement options. Adolescent Respite Centers provide parents and youth with a safe place for the youth to stay while both parties cool off. New York State Assembly Members Andrew Hevesi and Joseph Lentol published an opinion piece in City & State calling for the creation of respite centers with state social services funds in July of this year.

Adolescent Respite Centers should be open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Youth, police or families may drop-in to the centers, and the youth may voluntarily stay there no more than six weeks. Clinical social workers would be available to evaluate the adolescent’s and family’s needs within 24 hours of entering the Center. Nurses would be available to assess health needs, including reproductive health issues such as pregnancy. Centers would not be appropriate for serious mental health diagnoses. Schooling would be available on site, along with an educational coordinator who would work with the youth and the family to evaluate the young person’s educational needs. During their time at the shelter, youth and their families would have the opportunity to create a long-term placement plan along with a case worker and receive referrals to appropriate services. Staying in the Center would not automatically trigger an ACS intervention, though licensed clinical social workers would be mandated to report abuse or neglect in such cases.

Schools, police, medical professionals, EMTs, defender organizations, and social service providers would be encouraged to refer potential families to Adolescent Respite Centers. Centers should be located in diverse communities throughout the state, in urban, suburban and rural areas. A great example of an existing Adolescent Respite Center is Wind Youth Services in Sacramento, California. We urge the members of the Committee on Juvenile Justice to work with your colleagues at City Council, the State legislature, DYCD, ACS and other stakeholders like BDS to establish and fund respite centers.

ACS Training

ACS staff should receive training about the specific needs of court-involved youth, including those charged and convicted of JO offenses who are placed at Crossroads and Horizons. ACS should work with community members like the groups that testified here today, including BDS, to develop best practices for working with this population. New York City’s Crossover Youth Practice Model could serve as a model for how to begin developing a protocol for how ACS workers at all levels of the organization interact with youth transitioning out of Crossroads and Horizons.

ACS staff work hard to serve New York City youth. But the challenges facing youth charged with or convicted of JO offenses are immense. City Council efforts to limit the harms of homelessness would go far in improving outcomes for youth charged with JO offenses.

To that end, BDS recommends that City Council:

  • Establish and fund crisis shelter housing for youth in every borough of the City
  • Establish and fund short-term respite centers for youth and families
  • Ensure that every ACS employee receive training specific to the needs of youth charged with or convicted of JO offenses

Thank you for your time and consideration of this important issue.


Jillian Modzeleski – Criminal Defense Practice
The New York City Council Committees on Courts & Legal Services and Women’s Issues
Oversight Hearing on the Effectiveness of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts
September 18, 2015

My name is Jillian Modzeleski and I am a trial attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Our organization provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council Committees on Courts & Legal Services and Women’s Issues, and in particular Chairs Rory Lancman and Laurie Cumbo, for the opportunity to testify on the effectiveness of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs).

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as the public defense office in Brooklyn for people who have been arrested, those who are facing child welfare allegations and those who are facing deportation. We have developed a model of specialization to best represent certain types of clients, including people with mental illness, adolescents, and victims of human trafficking. Through specialized units of the office, we provide extensive wrap-around services that meet the needs of these traditionally under-served clients in a comprehensive way.

Since the inception of the HTIC in Kings County, I have served as BDS’ dedicated defense attorney assigned to the part. In addition, we have had two specialized social workers assigned to the part who are in court weekly to assist with assessments, placements, crisis intervention, and other social service needs. BDS also has specialized immigration attorneys with experience in the area of human trafficking, as well as family court attorneys available. We also attend the quarterly stakeholder meetings for the HTIC, which are facilitated by the judge and which have resulted in meaningful collaborations and effective resolution of numerous issues that have arisen since the part began.

HTICs can be a critical tool to protect trafficking victims from many of the devastating consequences of involvement with New York’s criminal justice system, but only when District Attorneys and Judges use them for that purpose. In BDS’ experience, HTICs predominately function as prostitution courts with connections to overstretched service providers. District Attorneys use the specter of punishment to persuade defendants who have been identified as potentially trafficked to inform on traffickers, but in my two and a half years of experience in HTICs, I have never—not once—seen this strategy work. Instead, some of my clients see case dispositions that mirror those of traditional criminal courts, though there has been an increase in ACDs since Brooklyn’s HTIC opened—from 49% of cases in which prostitution is the top charge to 66%. If the prosecution or the court deems one of my clients a victim of human trafficking, coerced into sex work as the mission of the court suggests, why do they not immediately dismiss the case or decline to prosecute?

When people arrested for prostitution-related charges are identified as having been trafficked, the criminal justice system should immediately cease treating that person as a “defendant.” Sexually exploited and/or trafficked individuals have complex needs and concerns, often including issues related to shelter, safety, children, immigration status, prior criminal justice involvement, addiction, and trauma. However, the court itself is not in the best position, nor is the prosecutor, to address those needs without running the risk of re-victimization and further trauma. BDS’ experience working with specialized populations, such as youth, veterans, people living with mental illness, has shown us that vulnerable individuals in contact with the criminal justice system bring a host of additional needs that often require substantial trust and rapport-building in order to adequately assess and address. Continued court involvement is not only onerous but can be detrimental, particularly for people who are identified as victims of sexual exploitation. BDS believes the potential for any trafficking victims to be penalized within the criminal court context, with court mandates, criminal consequences, far-reaching collateral consequences and further coercive control in their lives is counterproductive and wrong. Anyway, when services and support are delivered through the entities that are capable of punishing them, they are not likely to trust the system or see it as an ally in identifying their traffickers and holding them accountable.

BDS has a great working relationship with the other public defenders testifying today, and we share their belief that the fundamental problems with HTICs begin with the ludicrous idea that our City must arrest people to connect them with services.


While the intent of the HTICs may be an improvement over traditional criminal court, clients charged with the eligible offenses would be best served by not being arrested in the first place. This can be achieved in part by either repealing or, at the City government level, declining to prioritize enforcement of certain criminal statutes.

Among the most common charges that are handled by HTICs is Loitering for the Purpose of Prostitution, which should not be a crime. The statute refers to “wander[ing] about in a public place” and “repeatedly…attempt[ing] to engage passers-by in conversation” for the purposes of prostitution. Engaging or offering to engage in a sex act for a fee is criminalized in another statute; this loitering law only serves to give law enforcement the discretion to profile, arrest, and charge those whom officers deem likely to commit prostitution in the future—or those whom they want to harass—with a lower standard of proof. Enforcement of the law, if not the law itself, is patently sexist and racist. Of the BDS clients charged with this offense in the last three years, 76% were black and 87% were identified on their rap sheets as women. (The latter figure is complicated by police officers’ inconsistent approach to recording gender identities and expressions, as many of our clients are transgender.) They are commonly identified by their clothing choices. The law is also likely unconstitutional; in 2012, New York City settled a $15 million lawsuit for enforcing laws prohibiting loitering to panhandle or search for a sex partner after they were struck down by state and federal courts. Loitering charges clog the system, stretch the resources of service-providers whose focus would be better served on sexually exploited people who truly need them, and distract from the real work of identifying human traffickers and assisting victims. Since Brooklyn’s HTIC opened, the percentage of BDS’ loitering for prostitution cases that result in ACDs has doubled—from 26% to 53%—but another 40% continue to result in convictions. While the City Council cannot rewrite state law, it can certainly push the New York Police Department and local District Attorneys to stop enforcing unconstitutional, counterproductive statutes.

Certainly, many trafficking victims and sex workers would be ensnared in our criminal justice system regardless of prostitution-related statutes. HTICs could help connect these individuals with needed services while offering favorable case dispositions but, again, this would only be true when judges and District Attorneys use them for this purpose. To that end, one critical improvement to HTICs would be to open them up to handling additional charges. Furthermore, cases which may not involve sexual exploitation but involve another form of trafficking, such as labor trafficking, could be identified and better addressed through HTICs. Lastly, HTICs should be provided with dedicated Mandarin translators, as many cases are held up while the court waits for translators it shares with other parts.

The Systemic Injustice of Bail

Another critical flaw in HTICs is symptomatic of a broader injustice: the misuse of bail and pre-trial detention. I deeply appreciate that the Council, and Chair Lancman in particular, has sought to address this issue, and BDS is hopeful that one or more of the proposals currently in development will help our clients who are charged with HTIC-eligible offenses. Factors that could indicate a greater degree of victimhood, such as a long history of prostitution arrests, are also factors that make judges more likely to set bail. According to New York State law, bail is only to be used to secure a defendant’s return to court. However, it is an open secret that District Attorneys and Courts use it to ensure pre-trial detention, ostensibly in the interest of public safety. Cash bail is not uniquely good at achieving either of these objectives. Studies show that unsecured sureties and appearance bonds (e.g. promissory notes or credit card holds) are just as effective as securing defendants’ return to court. Outsourcing enforcement to bail bonds companies, whose only objective is profit, has never been shown to improve public safety. Moreover, nearly every BDS client in HTIC has been charged with only non-violent offenses, and thus public safety is not an issue.

Every year, tens of thousands of New Yorkers suffer the brutality of Rikers Island and other City jails simply because they are poor and cannot afford bail. They include people with serious mental illness, people who are medically fragile, adolescents, and victims of human trafficking. The vast majority are people of color, including 89% of those held on $1,000 or less. Each day inside increases the likelihood of job loss, loss of shelter or apartment placement, mental and physical health deterioration, and even death. Many suffer the torture of solitary confinement while still “presumed innocent.” As with other courts, cash bail deprives poor people of the right to a fair trial in HTICs. Pre-trial detention has been proven to distort case outcomes, as detained defendants who are inhibited from participating in their own defense and desperate to return to their families, jobs, and homes will accept far worse plea deals saddling them with a criminal record whether or not they are innocent, just to be released from Rikers with a sentence of “time served.” Almost none of my HTIC clients have ever made bail, and they almost always end up taking pleas with a more onerous mandate just to get out of jail. Moreover, I cannot interface with my incarcerated clients and therefore cannot connect them with critical support services to keep them healthy and safe. Significantly, I cannot start to form a meaningful relationship with them that would make them feel comfortable opening up about their histories and potential trafficking. The longer that sex workers are in custody, the longer they wait for help, should they want or need it.

Rikers is especially dangerous for individuals within the demographic groups whose cases are most likely to be handled by HTICs—namely women and transgender people. A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice found the percentage of people at Rose M. Singer Center, the jail for women on Rikers Island, who reported staff sexual misconduct to be more than three times higher than the national average for all jails, and approximately two and a half times the national average for women’s jails. Incarcerated transgender women are particularly vulnerable, as numerous studies have shown that rates of violence and sexual assault against them are far higher than those against cisgender individuals.

Adriana, a BDS client in HTIC, was prominently featured in a recent New York Times Magazine article, entitled “The Bail Trap.” She had left her daughter with a friend when she went to pick up diapers, and returned to find police officers waiting to arrest her for endangering the welfare of a child. The Assistant District Attorney on her case sought $5,000 bail, and the judge ultimately set it at $1,500, which made no difference, as Adriana could never afford either amount. (She had no conviction record, and no history of missed court appearances.) She spent the next two weeks on Rikers Island, with her daughter in foster care and the life that she was working hard to build crumbling more and more each day, while BDS attorneys sought without success to get bail lifted. Because Adriana had a history of sex work, her attorneys were able to get her case transferred to the HTIC, where the judge released her with conditions. She had to participate in a program. Meanwhile, a family court judge found that she had been a victim of human trafficking—something law enforcement should have considered much earlier given her history of prostitution-related court appearances in different states. Nonetheless, the Assistant District Attorney and judge continued to treat her case as a matter of child endangerment, and not as one of a single mother overcoming immense hardships and doing everything she could to provide for her daughter.

In most cases, HTIC judges can and should release our clients pending trial. Otherwise, judges should impose the least onerous form of bail—beginning with an unsecured appearance bond—that is required to secure a defendant’s return to court, and show cause on the record for the use of any form other than unsecured sureties. In addition, Assistant District Attorneys should be required to submit unique written motions requesting bail conditions and explaining the reasons for the request. Lastly, courts should have to reconsider bail at the end of every week of a defendant’s incarceration and consider her inability to pay as a “change of circumstance” that warrants a bail reduction or a conversion to a less onerous form. HTIC hearings are held every week, so the court has the ability to adjourn cases for short return, reducing the already small chances that a defendant will miss a court appearance. Ultimately, New York should live up to the American ideal of presumed innocence and end pre-trial detention for all but the most serious cases. Bail reform is one critical step to making that a reality.

Vacating Convictions

In 2010, New York State passed legislation enabling victims of sex trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution and loitering for the purposes of prostitution through a procedure established in Section 440.10 of the Criminal Procedure Law. This law was drafted and passed with critical support from a coalition of advocates and service providers that included sex workers, under the leadership of the Sex Workers Project, and represented a major victory against the criminalization of trafficking victims. However, the onus should not be on victims to vacate convictions. Instead, the onus should be on law enforcement to not arrest and prosecute them. Moreover, policymakers who are concerned about the collateral consequences of criminal convictions should look beyond the most politically sympathetic groups and address the permanent impacts of criminal convictions on those involved in sex work by choice or circumstances, as well. A robust sealing law is long-overdue in New York State.

Judicial Selection

The judge who currently sits on the bench in Brooklyn’s HTIC regularly demonstrates a deep understanding of the issue of human trafficking, and clearly cares about the well-being of our clients. That has not always been true in specialized courts, including in HTICs. BDS strongly believes that the position must be held by judges who volunteer for it, and who have committed to being educated and trained on issues related to human trafficking and the needs of its victims. Given the reality of HTIC, judges must also understand sex work. They also must be open to learning about the communities we serve, including trans clients, people struggling with addiction, and victims of domestic violence, and commit to evidence-based responses to the issues they face. This is also true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, for court staff. The current staff in Brooklyn’s HTIC is well-informed and treat our clients with the respect, and it is important for this practice to continue as staff turnover.

Condoms as Evidence

In accordance with a variety of new policies and informal agreements, we have not seen possession of condoms used as evidence of prostitution in Brooklyn in many months. This is a welcome change that is particularly visible in HTICs. The fact that these instruments of safe sex were ever criminalized is shameful, and the end of this practice represents important progress that should be emulated everywhere.


HTICs have served many of our clients well in terms of providing services and diversion from criminal convictions through offers that include ACD with program participation. However, for all practical purposes the part operates as a successful prostitution diversion court. For the mission of the HTIC to be actualized, all of the actors in the criminal justice process would have to alter their treatment of a case as soon as an individual is identified as potentially trafficked. In addition, policymakers and law enforcement officials must devise a new strategy around sex work that does not involve arrests. Even in the best outcomes in HTICs, that arrest remains a part of a person’s record in both government-run and private, for-profit databases for the rest of their life. It is long past time that we as a society confront the scourge of human trafficking without subjecting its victims to additional challenges, trauma and abuse.



Rebecca Kinsella – Youth Social Worker 



Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice

Oversight Hearing


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

September 21, 2016


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

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


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

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

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

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

Family Engagement at Crossroads and Horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem 4: Lack of privacy during visits and phone calls

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

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

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

Family Engagement at Rikers Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



Kelsey DeAvila – Jail Services Social Worker


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services

Hearing on

Proposed Legislation Int. 0899-2015, Int. 1014-2015, Int. 1064-2016, Int. 1144-2016, Int. 1152-2016A, Int. 1228-2016, Int. 1260-2016, Int. 1261-2016, and Int. 1262-2016

September 26, 2016

My name is Kelsey DeAvila. I am the Jail Services Social Worker at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. Approximately 6,000 of our clients will pass through city custody each year, most of who are incarcerated pretrial because prosecutors ask for and judges set bail in amounts that they cannot afford.

The legislation before this Committee today is integral to reforming our jail system. Each of the bills seeks to address injustices our clients experience while incarcerated in city custody. We appreciate the initiative the Speaker, the Council, and the Public Advocate have taken in introducing these bills and thank chair Elizabeth Crowley for calling this hearing. We previously submitted testimony regarding introductions 0899-2015, 1014-2015, 1064-2016 and 1144-2016. We refer the Council to our previous testimony regarding those pieces of legislation and wish to extend our strong support for their adoption, again.

We also support each piece of legislation under consideration by hearing today, and will share the experiences of our clients to illustrate why these bills are necessary to protect the dignity of our clients and their families. We will offer a few suggested amendments which we think will aid the bills in realizing their intent.

Intro 1152-A re: Maximum fee allowed when transferring money to a city inmate

BDS supports this introduction from the Public Advocate to cap the fees charged by private companies when community members send money to their loved ones in city jails. It is disturbing that the same poor families that cannot afford to buy their loved one’s freedom are forced to pay exorbitant fees to JPay and Western Union in order to send the little money they can afford to support their loved one in city jails. Commissary funds sent from the outside are essential to our clients’ lives while in custody. These funds are used to pay for phone calls that maintain community ties, essential toiletries and hygiene products, as well as food to supplement what is universally-described as inadequate and often inedible meals.

A family member’s incarceration often means loss of income for the family at large, and a drain on resources for shared responsibilities like childcare. In this context, any money that is sent to an incarcerated client should be viewed as a tremendous hardship. That this hardship is compounded by fees that can cut in half the amount of money the client ultimately receives is simply unacceptable.

Recommendations related to Int. 1152-A

This bill is an important first step towards protecting families of people accused of crimes, but the Council can go even further. We urge the council to take similar action to cap, or better yet, eliminate, the myriad other fees poor New Yorkers are saddled with while in custody.

Eliminate or cap fees on inmate phone calls

Making a fifteen-minute call home costs people in jail several dollars – the bulk of which is paid to Securus, a private company operating on the same dubious premise as JPay – to profit on the detention our city’s poorest residents. It is unclear how many millions of dollars Securus makes every year, though we know that the City anticipates $6 million per year from “inmate telephone fees.”[1]

Lower commissary prices

Similarly, basic goods available through commissary are subject to steep mark-ups collected by private vendors. A recent federal lawsuit out of Oklahoma that has remarkably survived to the discovery stage has shed significantly light on the unconscionable markups that prisoners face to obtain necessary commissary goods.[2]

Eliminate jailhouse fines and fees

The Department of Correction levees steep fines for basic infractions in the jail for things like a dirty cell or talking back to staff. These fees are charged to incarcerated people’s accounts, depriving funds otherwise used to maintain contact with family or basic hygiene.

It’s essential for the City to look at all the fees people incarcerated in City Jails are forced to pay during the course of their confinement. It is our position that many of these services should be the obligation of the City. People should not be forced to rely on a private contractor to meet the essentials of life while incarcerated.

Intro 1261 re: Authorizing the waiver of fees in the collection of cash bail

For the same reasons, BDS supports the Speaker’s legislation which would allow for a waiver of fees that families pay on top of cash bail. For most families, paying bail is a significant financial hardship. The three percent surcharge on cash bail comes as a surprise to families who have scraped together just enough to buy their loved-one’s freedom and the waiver will come as a welcome relief.

Recommendations about Int. 1261

We urge the Council to consider requiring a waiver of cash bail fees in all cases, rather than leaving it discretionary.

The City should create a campaign to educate the public about claiming cash bail.

The City’s unclaimed funds accounts consistently note unclaimed bail money as a significant contributor. This is because many people do not know that they can recover cash bail money at all at the end of the case.[3] The City could rectify this by increasing the availability of know your rights literature in the court houses and by reminding people of their right to cash bail monies at the conclusion of each case.

The Council should continue to push judges and prosecutors to reduce bail amounts unlawfully used to detain people pre-trial.

Ultimately the City could also be playing a larger role in reducing bail amounts used by judges and prosecutors to preventatively detain people before trial. Reductions in bail amounts would dampen the financial impact of this system.

The City should investigate its relationship with commercial bail bonds.

Additionally, and as it relates to the bills discussed above, the City should consider the role it plays in facilitating the use of Commercial Bail Bonds, private companies like J-Pay and Securus, that profit off the misery of incarceration. The bail bond process ensures that hundreds of thousands of dollars in non-refundable fees and premiums move from the communities that can least afford it, into the hands of private, for-profit companies backed by some of the largest insurance companies in the State.

Intro 1228-A re: Investigating, reviewing, studying and auditing of and making of recommendations relating to the operations, policies, programs and practices of the DOC by the commissioner of the DOI
BDS supports the Speaker’s introduction to codify the role of the Department of Investigation (DOI) in city jails. An independent rule-making body – the Board of Correction – and more independent investigations, should play an important role in moving our jails toward more humane and just conditions.  Although DOI already has the authority to investigate criminal or corrupt activities by DOC staff, the Department of Corrections has been left to police itself in too many instances.

Client Stories

In one case, a BDS client was raped by a Corrections Officer and had retained physical evidence of the attack.  Despite the seriousness of the allegation and the evidence showing that the allegation was credible, within 48 hours of the report, DOI had authorized DOC ID to conduct the investigation.  DOI had not interviewed the victim or the officer, nor had they made an effort to collect the physical evidence.

DOC ID has a disturbing track record in conducting these investigations – none of the more than more than 60 alleged sexual assaults by staff were referred for prosecution in 2014.[4]  We hope that clear guidance from the Council delineating a broad but specified range of investigations to be conducted by DOI will prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future.

Recommendations related to Int. 1228-A

In general terms, we believe DOI should be required and adequately funded to conduct investigations in any incident where an incarcerated person is injured, alleges sex abuse, or when correctional staff break the law. The Board of Corrections’ Minimum Standards are city law governing correctional policies and practices in New York City. When the law is broken because Department staff failed to abide by the Minimum Standards, DOI should be empowered to investigate violations, be required to report its findings, and ensure staff is held accountable.

The notion that the DOC could be authorized to investigate its own staff in serious cases is in part what led Rikers Island down the path to the mess we face today.  The recent conviction of several correctional staff in the brutal beatings of Jamal Lightfoot and Ronald Spear, and subsequent cover-ups, should serve as prescient reminders that outside investigations are foundational to uprooting the culture of opacity and violence that has plagued Rikers Island for too long. We are happy to engage with the Council in more detail and offer our expertise as you craft any amendments to the charter going forward.

Intro 1260 re: Transporting inmates in the custody of the DOC to all criminal court appearances

BDS supports introduction 1260 from the Speaker, which requires that all people in custody be produced for court appearances. The express purpose of pretrial detention is to ensure appearance at court, and it is foundational to principles of justice that people who are incarcerated before they are convicted be present in court to participate in their own defense. We have not seen data that suggests the DOC production rate is higher than the adjusted Failure to Appear Rate on ROR, which is less than 2 percent. Moreover, on any given court date, a client may be released, evaluated for an alternative to incarceration program, mental health or drug court placement, or they may be offered a plea. When any person misses a court date, it may prolong their incarceration, close doors to possible off-ramps from the system, and exacerbate associated collateral consequences.

The proposed legislation may not solve every problem with production – for example that of falsified refusals – however, we believe it is an important reminder of the purpose our jails are intended to serve. There is not city-wide documentation to properly ascertain the extent of this problem.

Recommendations related to Int. 1260

We recommend that the Council consider two important amendments to this legislation.

The bill should require that people be produced in the morning hours to their court appearances.

In Brooklyn Supreme Court, many court parts close at the lunch break and do not re-open in the afternoon. Consequently anyone brought to court after noon may not actually appear in court.

The bill should address transportation by DOC to any court date, not just those in criminal court.

This legislation should impact more than just criminal court appearances. In addition to their criminal cases, people in custody often have other intersecting cases in Family, Housing, and other civil courts. It is imperative that that the Department of Correction produce people to every court date as a matter of access to justice.

Intro 1262 re: Prohibiting DOC from producing inmates to court appearances in departmental uniforms

BDS vociferously supports this legislation requiring that people be produced to criminal court appearances in civilian clothing. Producing people to court in jail garments is prejudicial not only to juries but can inspire implicit biases in judges and court staff.  It is simply more just for all people to appear in court in their own clothing – to appear innocent before proven guilty.

Despite constitutional protections ensuring that people who appear before a jury do so in civilian clothing, in recent months a number of our clients were produced to court on their grand jury dates wearing jail uniforms.[5]

Client Stories

In one recent incident when the individual intended to testify, their grand jury was adjourned in order to allow DOC to produce the person again in civilian clothing, thereby unjustly extending their incarceration. At least one trial was recently delayed because our client was denied his trial clothing despite multiple requests to correction officers, and calls to DOC from the court as well as our office. Every day our Jail Services staff fields urgent requests from attorneys at Court for clothing, both for trials and for releases. BDS relies on clothing donations to meet this demand. These jail uniforms are thrown out once people get street clothing, and the replacement of these must be a considerable expense for the City.

Although the Department has assured the Board of Correction that they receive “trial lists” daily to alert them of individuals who should be produced to court in civilian clothing – this is not an adequate guarantee.[6] Many trials begin after being “sent out” from a regular court appearance, and these individuals would not have been produced in appropriate clothing.  Our experience suggests that grand jury appearances also are not consistently listed on the “trial lists” used by the Department.  The right to appear as a civilian before a jury is fundamental to our justice system. This legislation is essential to protect this right from poor management on the part of the Department, which clearly does not understand the mechanics of criminal proceedings.

Another disturbing side-effect of producing people to court in jail garb is that they are released back to the community in jail garb. The nature of criminal proceedings can be unpredictable – frequently people are released to programs or on Recognizance unpredictably. Releasing people in jail uniforms is both degrading and dangerous.

Despite assurances that DOC would make civilian clothing available in courthouses, people are still routinely discharged from court in jail uniforms.  In one recent case, the judge was concerned about our young female client’s release in jail uniform and refused to release her until BDS brought clothing to the courthouse for her because court and DOC staff reported that they would not do so. In another recent instance a 16 year old client we represented was released from Rikers and was terrified of returning to his neighborhood in the uniform for fear of the police and gangs in the area. BDS was happy to provide him with clothing to make the journey home, but the defense bar should not be made to play this role. If anyone is to be produced to court in a uniform it is essential that the Department be required to provide civilian clothing for those discharged from court under the law.

Again, we urge the Council to extend the sensible reforms included in this bill by amending the language to include other courts – the issues of prejudice and dignity hold in those settings as well.


We thank the Council for its continued attention to the needs of people in city jails and their families. We hope that you continue to adopt an aggressive stance toward making New York City humane for all people. To that end, we urge you to explore legislation that will cap unreasonable fees across the system. We also urge you to investigate the disturbing conditions families endure when they visit their loved-ones on Rikers Island.[7] On a good day, the process is degrading and can take many hours.  On a bad day, it can involve sexual assault by corrections officers, or being denied a visit altogether.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. We are grateful to the Council for bringing to light the issues these important criminal justice issues.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 208) or kdeavila@bds.org.


[1] New York City Office of Management and Budget, November 2015 Financial Plan: Revenue 2016-2019, p. 47 (published Nov. 12, 2015), available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/omb/downloads/pdf/nov15_rfpd.pdf.

[2] Casey Tolan, “How one inmate discovered his private prison was ripping him off – and took his warden to court,” Fusion, Sept. 19, 2016, available at http://fusion.net/story/348070/geo-group-lawton-commissary-michael-leatherwood-lawsuit/.

[3] To learn more about cash bail refunds, visit https://www1.nyc.gov/site/finance/sheriff-courts/courts-cash-bail-refunds.page.

[4] See Amicus Brief in Support of Leave to Appeal Denial of Class Certification at 14 (Declaration of Public Advocate Leticia James), Doe v. City of New York, No. 15 CV 03849 (S.D.N.Y.  filed Oct. 9, 2015), available at http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/sites/advocate.nyc.gov/files/james_declaration.pdf

[5] See Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 512 (1976).

[6] Board of Correction November 10, 2015 Meeting Minutes at page 5, available at http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/boc/downloads/pdf/BOCMinutes%20(11.10.15).pdf.

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



Yung-Mi Lee – Supervising Attorney, Criminal Defense Practice


Presented before the New York City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services and Committee on Public Safety 

Hearing on Wrongful Convictions: Using Evidence-Based Procedures and Technology to Keep Innocent People Out of Jail

September 23, 2016

My name is Yung-Mi Lee. I am a Supervising Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). I have practiced as a criminal defense attorney in New York and New Jersey for over 22 years. I currently represent misdemeanor and felony clients in Brooklyn criminal and Supreme Court.

BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. We thank the City Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services and the Committee on Public Safety for the opportunity to testify about wrongful convictions in New York City.

Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn

More than a dozen people prosecuted in Kings County have been exonerated in recent years.[1] Common factors in the wrongful convictions of these innocent men include unreliable witness identifications, false confessions, and prosecutor’s withholding of evidence from the defense.

Evidence-based procedures and technology can play a critical role in protecting against false confessions and mistaken or improper eyewitness identifications. The electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. Complete recording improves the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.[2] In addition, the Innocence Project endorses a range of procedural reforms to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification. These reforms have been recognized by police, prosecutorial and judicial experience, as well as national justice organizations, including the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association. The benefits of double-blind identification procedures, for example, are corroborated by over 30 years of peer-reviewed comprehensive research.[3]

As the Innocence Project notes, numerous states have implemented evidence-based practices as standard procedure to prevent wrongful convictions. There is no doubt that New York City should join these jurisdictions. That being said, some bar associations, including the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, among others, have expressed significant concerns about the Statement and Identification Integrity Act introduced over the last few years before the NYS legislature.[4] One major concern that defense attorneys have with the proposed legislation is that the bills do not reform harmful and outdated discovery procedures. It is no surprise that the majority of states that have enacted double-blind interrogations and/or mandatory recorded interrogations are also states that have modern discovery statutes.

As defenders who practice every day in Brooklyn courtrooms, BDS recognizes the impact that improved ID procedures and complete recordings of interrogations could have in our cases. But that evidence is only useful to us if the discovery attendant to those practices is turned over by the prosecutors. Under current state law, prosecutors are not required to disclose critical evidence against our clients until the eve of trial. This requires us to advise the vast majority of clients on plea agreements without the benefit of full discovery, or, in the rare cases that do proceed to trial, to sift through thousands of pages of evidence like witness interviews, or phone or social media records mere hours before selecting a jury.

Mr. R, a BDS client, was charged with the attempted murder of two people. His arrest and prosecution for the case were based on a single eyewitness identification. In this case, the prosecutor chose not to turn over discovery for over a year, until the Friday before trial. The discovery turned over included reports of a photo array which included our client’s picture.  The two shooting victims viewed the photo array.  The first did not choose our client as the shooter. The second offered only an equivocal identification, saying he thought our client might have been the shooter.  The discovery package also revealed that our client was not a suspect at the time of the photo array. His photo had been randomly inserted into the array. The day after the equivocal photo identification, the police conducted a line up and the second witness identified our client. Furthermore, the discovery package revealed critical ballistics evidence that showed that the same gun had been used in another shooting involving different people, not our client. This necessitated additional investigation and discovery and required pushing out the trial date again at the last date.

Mr. R may have benefited from evidence-based identification procedures. Indeed, he never would have been implicated in the case but for the improper photo array. But a double-blind eyewitness identification procedure would not have ameliorated that initial taint. The only way that defense attorneys can challenge improper or illegal actions that occur at any stage of the case is when we have complete discovery. If Mr. R had not proceeded to trial, and simply taken a plea because he was tired of sitting on Rikers Island for more than year, none of this information would have come to light.

Additionally, while the Brooklyn DA’s office has more recently been turning over videotapes of interrogations, we remain concerned about the police interaction prior to the video interrogations.    We have had plenty of cases where oral statements have been taken from our clients and then because the “cat’s out of the bag” the police or prosecutors begin videotaping the confession.  Oftentimes, our clients have already been in custody for a lengthy time and are not even aware that their arrest may have been illegal.   What is most critical in a false confession case is the events that lead up to the confession and in order for defense attorneys to properly litigate the legality of these confessions, we must have complete and early discovery.

Justice requires that prosecutors turn over all of the evidence in the case to the defense as early as possible and automatically. If City Council is truly committed to preventing wrongful convictions, you must work with defenders and other community groups to publicly push prosecutors to provide full disclosure in all cases and call upon the state legislature to pass comprehensive discovery reform.


The solution to New York’s discovery issues is already available. The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) brought together a diverse committee of judges, law professors and lawyers to examine the statute and propose changes.  Their 2015 report[5] provides a model for reform that should be adopted by the state legislature to bring New York’s discovery requirements in line with the rest of the nature.

City Council should pass Res. 430-2014 (King), a resolution calling on the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign, legislation to amend the Criminal Procedure Law Article 240 and replace it with a law mandating early, open, and automatic pre-trial discovery. Passage of the resolution would send a strong message to the legislature of the urgency of reform.

City Council should also work with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and local prosecutors to encourage those in boroughs with outdated and draconian policies to turn over discovery in its entirety as soon as they obtain it. Justice demands nothing less.


There is no doubt that misidentifications and forced confessions impact New York City residents. The hundreds of people who have been wrongfully convicted can attest to that. But reform on these issues must proceed in tandem with discovery reform. Evidence-based procedures and technology are only useful to defendants if their attorneys receive this information early on and completely. We look forward to working with City Council to determine how we can ensure justice in our communities by reforming current discovery policies across the five boroughs and throughout the state.


[1] See, e.g., Colleen Wright, “Another Exoneration in Brooklyn Brings Total Since Last Year to 14,” N.Y. Times, Aug. 4, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/nyregion/another-exoneration-in-brooklyn-brings-total-since-last-year-to-14.html.

[2] Innocence Project, “False Confessions and Admissions,” available at http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes/false-confessions-admissions/.

[3] Innocence Project, “Eyewitness Identification Reform,” available at http://www.innocenceproject.org/eyewitness-identification-reform/.

[4] See Testimony of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers before the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety re: Res. No. 979 (April 6, 2016).

[5] New York State Bar Association, Report of the Task Force on Discovery (2015), available at https://www.nysba.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=54572.



Kelsey De Avila – Social Worker, Jail Services


Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Women and Fire, Correction, & Criminal Justice

Oversight Hearing Examining the Unique Issues Facing Women in City Jails & Intro 0899-2015

A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to requiring the Department of Correction to report on the Rikers Island nursery program.

December 15, 2015

My name is Kelsey De Avila and I am a Social Worker in the Jail Services division at Brooklyn Defender Services.  Thank you for this opportunity to address the Council.  My testimony will address a range of issues which impact our female clients who are incarcerated at the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC, or “Rosies”) on Rikers Island, including a number of problems related to the nursery program.  We support the adoption of intro 0899, and encourage the Council to go even further in its oversight of the women’s jail.

Presently, our city jails fail to provide services to address the multitude of issues that specifically impact women.  When compared to their male counterparts, our female clients who are incarcerated are more likely to suffer from a mental illness (recently more than 70%) and chronic medical conditions; they are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed; they are much more likely to have histories of trauma and to be survivors of sexual and physical abuse; they are more often the primary caretakers of children while in the community; and horrifyingly, they are much more likely to experience sexual abuse while incarcerated.  Rather than receiving targeted services and programming to address these serious and wide-ranging issues, our clients at Rosies frequently experience triggers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and new traumas. Notably, the bulk of the top charges that bring women into contact with the criminal justice system may be related to histories of drug and alcohol addiction – a clear indication that the War on Drugs continues to wreak havoc in the lives of the clients, families, and communities we serve.

The programming that is available at Rosies is inconsistent and poorly promoted – most of our clients report learning about available programs through word-of-mouth. Programs may also be inaccessible for many women because they are only offered in certain units, or require an escort.  Escorted movement throughout the jail may be wise to ensure safety, however, chronic understaffing means that escorts are often unavailable, limiting access to programming, medical and mental health care, and delaying counsel visiting.


The visiting room at Rosies includes space for women to play with their children.  However, this room is open at the discretion of the officer, which means not every mother and child have the opportunity to use it.  To add, for the last several months, water has been leaking from the ceiling gathering in a putrid puddle, molding toys and books, and rendering the space unusable.  Despite offers from Hour Children to replace toys and beautify the space, the Department has failed to fix the leak or repair the room.  Instead, DOC has exerted significant resources pursuing rule changes which would limit contact between incarcerated women and their families.

Staff Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse by staff of women at Rosies has become endemic and must be an urgent priority of the council. According to court documents filed by Public Advocate Letitia James, your Department of Correction has failed to transmit reports of sexual assault to the NYPD for investigation in 114 of 116 cases, including 61 that were allegedly carried out by Rikers staff, which is disturbing and shameful. Our jails should be subject to oversight which go above and beyond the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA): camera coverage should be expanded and include particularly dangerous places like transport buses; meaningful investigations must take place immediately; staff must be held accountable promptly; and most importantly we need to ensure the protection of the survivor.

Pregnant and Incarcerated

One of our clients is a 16 years old sharing a cell with a pregnant woman.  The pregnant woman was in pain and asked our client to get her some water.  The officer told our client that the pregnant woman needed to do it herself.  The officer did not use the opportunity to get help or alert medical staff.  Instead, an argument arose and our client received a ticket, or infraction, for disrespecting staff when she advocated for this woman to get attention.  Officers need to be properly trained to work with pregnant women; we can’t allow this kind of mistreatment towards people to go unnoticed; pregnant women should be housed together to ensure better access to programs, medical attention and other resources.

New Mothers

With regard to the Nursery unit, we echo the comments and testimony offered by others including the Legal Aid Society and Hour Children.  Maintaining parental bonds is essential to the well-being of children and mothers alike, and the positive impacts will be felt beyond the jail in communities throughout the city.  The Nursery program is an opportunity for women to receive parenting resources and support, which should continue for both the mother and child after the program.

We are encouraged by reports that denials to the Nursery have slowed, however, we are hopeful that the provision in Int 0899 requiring reporting on reasons for denials will eventually yield greater approval rates.  One major criterion for denial is previous ACS involvement.  Based on our experience representing parents in Family Court, we know that the range of allegations constituting “abuse and neglect” is extraordinarily broad and should not be grounds for denial.  For example, having had a dirty house has no relationship to one’s ability to parent in the nursery setting.  Timeliness of application processing should also be scrutinized, and should be included in the bill. Applications for placement to the nursery should not take months to process, as has been the case in the past. Such delays are contrary to the very purpose of the program, namely to maintain mother-child bonds.  The issue is not solely one of facility capacity; the Nursery can hold up to fifteen women, and on my last visit, held only four.

We recently represented a client who had a 6 month-old child and was breast feeding at the time of her arrest.  She was incarcerated pre-trial and was not told by DOC how long she and her child would be separated before being approved to co-reside at RMSC.  We’ve received information from DOC staff that the approval process can take up to four months.  There should be little to no gap of separation from a mother and their child.  Such separation can be damaging to the child’s development and dangerous to a mother’s mental health. Among the many risks is the onset of post-partum depression, which First Lady Chirlane McCray has described as a major concern for this Administration. We also know the positive benefits breastfeeding has on the mother and child. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends it and offers support to breastfeeding women in the community, yet DOC apparently does not make it a priority. The approval process needs to be expedited and the presumption should be to allow women and their children to participate, unless they present a serious threat to physical safety.

Mother-child bonding does not cease to be important on the child’s first birthday, yet the Nursery Program is only available during this first year of infancy.  The Nursery Program should be expanded to allow children to remain with their mothers through their entire infancy as is permitted in several state prison systems, or even longer – through their pre-school years – as is permitted in many other countries’ correctional systems. At the very least, mothers who are serving sentences at Rosies that only exceed their young children’s birthdays by a few months should be allowed to stay in the program to prevent separation prior to re-entry.  Additionally, the Council and the Administration should dedicate more resources to mothers in the community, including by investing in re-entry assistance, parental support, education, and job-placement assistance for mothers who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Illegal and Unconscionable Shackling of Pregnant Women

Finally we implore the Council to immediately require that the Department adhere to existing state law (Correction Law 611) prohibiting shackling of pregnant women.  Currently, pregnant women who are taken to community hospitals for treatment are shackled at their wrists and ankles, with chains around their waists.  Even when women receive abdominal surgeries, they are shackled at the hospital and during transport.  This practice is illegal, inhumane and unnecessary, and poses extreme risk to the health of the mother and her pregnancy.


The Council has a responsibility to ensure the safety of all New Yorkers.  The abuse and particularly the sexual violence taking place in the jails is an emergency and it is unacceptable.  Platitudes like “reform takes time” are an insult to people and families who are suffering now. The vast majority of the women at Rosies simply should not be in jail – they are there simply because they are too poor to pay bail.  To expose these women to a regime of sexual violence and abuse simply because they are poor is so morally abhorrent as to shock the conscience.  The Council should prioritize access to services, alternatives to incarceration, and an end to pre-trial detention in all but the most serious cases.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments.



Sergio Jimenez – Director, Civil Justice Practice


Presented before 

The New York City Council Committee on Public Housing

Oversight Hearing Examining NYCHA’s Compliance with HUD’s Admissions Regulations and New Permanent Exclusion Policy

December 15, 2015

My name is Sergio Jimenez and I am the Director of the Civil Justice Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Our organization provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council Committee on Public Housing, and in particular Chair Ritchie Torres, for the opportunity to testify on New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Permanent Exclusion policy.

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as the public defense office in Brooklyn for people who have been arrested, those who are facing child welfare allegations, and those who are facing deportation. Through both legal advocacy in court and direct advocacy with various agencies, we assist people in fighting evictions, maintaining their public benefits, staying in school, keeping their jobs, and protecting their consumer rights. Our Civil Justice Practice aims to reduce the so-called collateral consequences for low-income people who have had interactions with the criminal, family or immigration justice systems. We also assist criminal defense attorneys and their clients by identifying potential civil ramifications of guilty pleas and strategizing ways to minimize the risk of eviction, loss of employment, and educational consequences as a result of a criminal conviction. We serve many clients who might otherwise be left to navigate these challenges alone. Finally, in addition to our in-house work, we engage with the community and hold external educational clinics in close partnership with community-based organizations and elected officials.

The Need to Reform NYCHA’s Permanent Exclusion Policy

There are many ways in which residents of NYCHA live a Tale of Two Cities. Nearby schools are often very segregated. Urgent repairs in public housing are subject to long delays with no meaningful accountability, while private landlords face enforcement action from the City. And while the New York City Council is working to lift people out of the homelessness crisis and expand affordable housing options, NYCHA instead plans to take away more people’s housing of last resort[1] through more aggressive eviction actions and increased use of Permanent Exclusion.

While the Permanent Exclusion policy might be well-intended and arises from the legitimate concerns of many residents and agency officials, it is among the starkest examples of our government’s counterproductive approach to crime and social problems.

There is no evidence or indication that increasing evictions—and exacerbating our City’s homelessness crisis—improves public safety.

Recent statements by the Administration, the report by the New York City Department of Investigation, and media reports all apparently presume the efficacy of evictions in reducing crime; none have provided any justification for this approach.


  • NYCHA should end the exclusion of New Yorkers except in the most serious cases, in which residents or prospective residents in question present a clear threat to the physical safety of their neighbors.
  • NYCHA should immediately cease excluding residents based on arrests, after which a person is supposed to be presumed innocent, and instead limit criteria for exclusions to those required by federal law, or at least to serious felony convictions that are balanced against mitigating factors.
  • Youth under the age of 21, seniors, and those with intra-household caregiver relationships should never be evicted from their homes for an arrest or conviction. If necessary, NYCHA should provide for the transfer of the entire household to another apartment to resolve conflicts in a particular building. 


As you may know, federal law requires public housing authorities to evict and exclude people from admission based on certain limited criteria, including those convicted of “drug-related criminal activity for [the] manufacture of methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing” and those subject to lifetime inclusion in State sex offender registries.[2] While those are the only two mandatory exclusions, NYCHA has created a discretionary model that builds on these criteria and excludes people arrested—not convicted, but arrested—even for low-level, non-violent offenses, regardless of the dispositions of their cases.

Arrests do not tell us anything about a person. First and foremost, that person is presumed innocent unless convicted, and thus any statutory consequence in public housing calls for questions of constitutionality. Secondly, in New York, many targeted communities, particularly people of color, find interactions with law enforcement to be a regular occurrence, despite no wrongdoing. This is especially true in public housing, where police officers regularly question residents’ right to be in their own buildings. Moreover, despite recent reforms, our City, State, and Country continue to rely on over-policing, mass incarceration and long-term supervision in lieu of effective policies and programs to address mental illness, poverty, addiction, homelessness, and widespread invidious discrimination. These issues disproportionately impact NYCHA residents and their families. For example, the ongoing war on drugs continues to ensnare large numbers NYCHA residents and their family members. Likewise, the high unemployment rate among public housing residents—only 47.3% of families have one or more employed member[3]—tells us residents are particularly vulnerable to arrest for crimes of poverty, such as turnstile jumping or petit larceny. In fact, an estimated 7.1 million people in New York State, or 36%, have RAP sheets. This statistic exemplifies the enormous reach of the dragnet of our criminal justice system. As a society, we must not define people by their criminal histories. As a property owner and residential dwelling manager, NYCHA should not evict them on such a discriminatory basis.  This is particularly true given that NYCHA has been found to be “housing of last resort,” both by the courts and by the public.

Housing as a Matter of Justice and Public Safety

Many NYCHA residents are understandably frustrated by higher crime rates in their developments relative to the City at large, and as community leaders, Council Members are best positioned to facilitate an honest, intergenerational conversation about evidence-based approaches to public safety. Stable housing and healthy support networks are two key elements in any person’s ability to overcome the multifaceted challenges of being poor in New York. Housing is essential to educational continuity, finding and keeping jobs, adhering to physical and mental health care regimens, and accessing critical services including drug rehabilitation and therapy, all of which impact crime rates and recidivism. Likewise, robust support networks help us get by and hold us accountable. Both are shattered by NYCHA’s exclusion policy, which pushes individuals into shelter and tears apart families upon threat of evicting their entire household. This remains true when, as Commissioner Bratton stated in July of 2015, NYCHA is seeing a historically low level of crime.

The lack of viable housing options that is endemic to our city results in increased rates of crime and recidivism, and taking housing from those who have it only exacerbates this problem. Our City and State criminalize poverty in general and homelessness in particular. People are sent to Rikers at a cost to taxpayers of more than $500 per day for skipping a $2.50 fare they likely cannot afford. They are arrested for “feet on the seat,” often for sleeping on the train, or trespassing for sleeping in a stairwell. However, the displacement and marginalization caused by NYCHA’s exclusion policy can also lead to more serious crimes that impact public safety. For example, disruptions in psychopharmacological drug and therapy regimens, which are extremely difficult to follow while moving from shelter to shelter at irregular hours, can lead to violent incidents. Helping people stay in their homes is thus a matter of public safety.

The following client story exemplifies the problem:

Ms. C

BDS’ Criminal Defense Practice picked up Ms. C’s case following a single alleged purchase of drugs from her apartment. She was arrested more than a year after the incident, despite a statement by the confidential informant that described someone three inches taller and about fifty- seventy pounds heavier.  Ms. C was released on her own recognizance and her charges have been progressively reduced as her case is going on its third year.  Our office expects a full dismissal when the case is fully litigated.  However, during the course of the determination of this criminal matter, NYCHA brought a termination of tenancy proceeding based on the allegations. Ms. C will not be able to defend herself at NYCHA without considerations to her criminal case, which places her housing of last resort in jeopardy. After bringing the initial charges, NYCHA is now threatening an additional charge that Ms. C’s brother, who suffers from mental illness, had a criminal record. There have been no incidents of violence through the entirety of Ms. C’s tenancy but now, Ms. C will have to make another terrible choice: risk her family’s housing or permanently exclude her extremely vulnerable brother.  Asking families to make these choices as a result of questionable, non-violent allegations runs counter to the values espoused by HUD in their latest efforts at facilitating re-entry of tenants into NYCHA.

Real Reform

There are many ways to improve the process by which exclusions and evictions are determined. Residents sometimes unknowingly agree to prohibit a family member from ever visiting their apartment—a disturbing occurrence that NYCHA will not let them fix. They usually go through the proceedings pro se (without representation). They deal directly with NYCHA’s prosecuting attorneys, as opposed to receiving a hearing with an impartial officer, without being informed of the attorneys’ role in the matter. Those with limited English proficiency do not receive adequate translation services. Troublingly, these agreements are five pages of legalese, which are often not thoroughly explained to tenants agreeing to them. Certainly, providing additional funding for civil legal service providers to represent every NYCHA resident facing termination proceedings and providing robust translation services would improve case outcomes. Already, the Council provides funding for pro se help by funding Housing Court Answers to set up information booths, which deserves praise. That said, the mere fact that NYCHA is planning to reinstate its public “Not Wanted List” should be a clear indicator to the Council that this policy is informed by stigma and not sound judgement. Simply improving the process is insufficient. The primary driver of reform should be dramatically reducing the number of people forced from their homes through changes in NYCHA policy to make eviction an absolute last resort.


The soaring rates of poverty and homeless in New York are, at best, deeply problematic. Certainly, as one of the wealthiest cities in the world, we can do better. We are in crisis. Indeed, many of New York’s elected and appointed officials in every level of government consider expanding housing opportunities to be among their top priorities. Yet NYCHA’s opaque and lop-sided exclusionary policies are an anomaly that endures only because of a misunderstanding about what makes us safe. Given the adverse impacts of unstable housing on individuals, communities, and our city as a whole, I respectfully urge Council Members to follow the federal government’s recent example and work to expand re-entry in public housing authorities. This effort would require initiating conversations with the public housing communities in your districts about the broad-based exclusion of fellow residents, including those who have made mistakes, and helping to empower those who have been directly impacted by this policy to help lead the fight for reform.

[1] Matter of Featherstone v Franco, 269 AD2d 109, 111 [dissenting mem]; see also, Matter of Sanders v Franco, 269 AD2d 118; Mireya Navarro,

As NewYork Rents Soar, Public Housing Becomes Lifelong Refuge, The New York Times (Aug. 3, 2015) available at  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/nyregion/as-new-york-rents-soar-public-housing-becomes-lifelong-refuge.html

[2] 24 CFR § 960.204

[3] http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/res_data.pdf



Lisa Schreibersdorf – Executive Director



The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety

JANUARY 25, 2016

My name is Lisa Schreibersdorf. I am the Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. Because of this work we have a front-row seat in which to view most of the City’s criminal justice practices and policies. We are thankful that the New York City Council is continuing to seriously look at the wide-ranging harms, direct and collateral, inflicted by the criminal justice system with an eye toward balance, proportionality, fairness and racial equity. Specifically we would like to thank the Committee on Public Safety for extending to us the opportunity to testify about the bills introduced by the Council today, which we support.

The proposals being introduced today will go a long way towards easing the burdens created by the steady rise of punitive quality-of-life enforcement over the past two decades. This legislation will pave the way for fewer cases in criminal court and fewer people in jail solely because they are unable to pay small fines. It should also result in less paperwork and overtime for the New York Police Department. These are all good things. We thank Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Courts and Legal Services Chair Rory Lancman, and Public Safety Chair Vanessa Gibson for their leadership in identifying these problems and seeing through to the introduction and active support of this legislation.

Unfortunately, in New York City, people are still arrested and jailed for acts like littering, drinking a beer in a park, or sleeping in a NYCHA stairwell. Over the past decade, more than 6 million summonses have been issued for the most minor of crimes, violations, and infractions, so many that the court system could barely manage. There are more than 1 million outstanding summons warrants which trigger automatic arrest upon law enforcement contact, a severe burden to both the public and to criminal justice resources. Currently Brooklyn Defender Services represents in criminal court, more than 2,000 people a year who have been arrested and held in custody for up to 24 hours and facing further penalties after being stopped and arrested for infractions and violations – not even crimes. Most of these cases involve clients who have summons court warrants or have been stopped for transit related offenses during the previous year. Despite not having committed an offense that rises to the level of a crime, our clients face jail time, evictions and even deportation because these minor infractions and violations are adjudicated in criminal court. This problem, which the Council is seeking to ameliorate with these bills, is immense, affecting literally hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every year, mostly from communities of color, entirely because of the disparate nature with which these technically illegal acts are enforced. With this in mind, the City Council deserves substantial credit for easing the penalties for a group of New York City’s lowest-level crimes and violations.

For the past several months we have been interviewing our clients who come through criminal court on summons offenses and the results have been predictably appalling: A 48 year-old man who cut through a park on his way home from work; a middle-aged Spanish-speaking man who used his daughter’s student metro-card to enter the transit system; a young woman arrested for being in a park without a child; a 51-year-old man drinking a beer on the sidewalk outside his home; a 76-year-old man for public urination; a 21-year-old man for riding his bike against traffic. In each of these cases our clients had previous unpaid summons matters that, in general, they either could not afford to pay or did not understand fully their obligations to pay. In some cases the unpaid summonses were more than a decade old. I think it is fair to say that a night in jail is not necessarily a punishment proportionate to these behaviors, let alone the additional attendant penalties. It is these cases that the legislation introduced today will most directly affect in a positive manner. People in similar circumstances in the future will not necessarily have to worry about being brought through the criminal courts, with a threat of more jail time hanging over their head. This is a welcomed development and goes far towards aligning harm and punishment in a proportional way, avoiding the trauma of incarceration for thousands of people, reducing the risk of police encounters escalating and going a long way towards easing some of the feeling of oppression that is felt in the communities from which most of our clients come.

Another direct result of these reforms will be to free up time and space in criminal court so that more serious matters can be given the attention they require. Currently, the high volume of people brought through the system for these types of minor violations and infractions result in high arrest-to-arraignment times (sometimes up to 24 hours), longer spans between court appearances and, at times, a lack of court personnel and courtroom space for the swift adjudication of cases. The horrors the Council has heard about lengthy stays at Rikers Island and problems associated with monetary bail will also likely be impacted by this new legislation. The most positive reforms we’ve seen during the past two years have been the reductions in arrest, summons and overall police interaction numbers. These bills codify some of these current policies and will ensure that in the future there will not be a resurgence in arrests for things like being in the park after dark. These bills also send a message to the police that the

City Council will do its part of act as a guardian of the rights of the residents of this city against unwarranted over-policing.

Many technical questions regarding the implementation of these bills remain to be hammered out during the legislative process. Critically, moving these cases to civil courts removes the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, which, in addition to ensuring advocacy on individual cases, also provides for an essential layer of oversight to the process. We hope that this issue will be carefully considered while the legislation is being reviewed.

In addition: Will the public be compelled to show identification to the police during interactions for these violations or risk arrest and detention? Will people have to show up to court, missing work, school or childcare responsibilities? Will there be a way people to ask for a new court date? Will there be evening hours? Can the summons forms be updated so people can readily understand them? These are just a few of the issues we are interested in hearing more about and which we are happy to share our experience to help resolve.

Looking to the future, once these bills pass, many issues highlighted to Council during previous discussions on summons reforms remain unaddressed, such as inequitable and over-enforcement.  There is more work to be done as the Council has foreseen with the introduction of the reporting bills. Again BDS is ready to assist in any way to continue a dialogue that will maximize the benefits of this legislation.

We hope the Council will consider a review of the civil penalties and will also expand the list of decriminalized offenses. Even with these welcome changes, it appears likely that tens of thousands of people will still be brought through criminal summons court each year where criminal records, jail and even deportations await. For those lucky enough to have civil court adjudication, punishments may still be out of line with offenses. A $250 fine, while it might seem reasonable to Council Members and staff, is a major sum for people living paycheck to paycheck, and can be the difference between feeding their families or going hungry, paying rent or becoming homeless. Civil judgments ruin credit scores and, like arrests and criminal court involvement, saddle our clients with permanent punishment. If the police are going to be involved at all, the preference – for all of these violations – should be to ask people to stop what they are doing in the first instance.

The NYPD Commissioner has insisted that without police involvement there will be no way to actually force people to behave, but a growing body of evidence, backed up by our own decades of experience in the field, shows that accountability is not asked of everyone in an equitable way. Demographic groups already under siege from a host of structural issues in the city, from housing to healthcare to employment, are typically held to a higher level of accountability than other groups, especially with regards to the minor infractions under discussion today. The Council plan – as Public Safety Chair Vanessa Gibson acknowledged Friday as a guest on WNYC – does little to address the inequitable, if not outright discriminatory enforcement of these violations. Black or Latino New Yorkers received at least 81 percent of summonses issued between 2001-2013, including 90 percent of littering offenses and 93 percent of spitting offenses. Moving these cases to civil court does not eliminate the problem. Any court system, civil or criminal marked by such obvious racial bias will suffer from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of those people it is meant to control.

We would again like to thank the Council for moving definitively to address these issues, which are central to the fair administration of justice in our City and for extending to us the opportunity to comment on the bills introduced today. We look forward to remaining engaged with the Council as these bills move through the legislative process.


Lindsey Buller – BIA Accredited Representative


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Immigration

Hearing on

Supporting New York City’s DREAMers and “DACA-mented Youth


Resolution 1484-2017

June 19, 2017


My name is Lindsey Buller. I am a Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representative for the Youth and Communities Project at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for over 30,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. The Immigrant Youth and Communities Project (YCP) has represented thousands of Brooklyn immigrants in their applications for lawful immigration status and in defending against deportation in non-detained removal proceedings.  Highlights of our work include assisting more than 320 young clients in their pursuit of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), Adjustment of Status, U visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and other immigration benefits or removal defense, and assisting more than 1,000 Haitian New Yorkers with their applications for Temporary Protected Status, work authorization, and other immigration benefits or removal defense. I thank the City Council Committee on Immigration for the opportunity to testify today about BDS’s support for Resolution 1484-2017 and the challenges that our DACA youth clients face in accessing education and supporting their families.

BDS’s Provision of DACA Services

Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 7,500 immigrant clients. In 2016 alone, we handled more than 1,500 immigration matters across a full spectrum of services. Our immigration practice is composed of 17 full-time immigration attorneys, two law graduates, five paralegals accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, one full-time and one part time social worker, two legal assistants and two Immigrant Justice Corp Legal Fellows representing more than 1,000 immigrant New Yorkers every year. We are a Board of Immigration Appeals-recognized legal service provider.

BDS recently completed a contract with the Division of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) to provide DACA services.[1] Through that contract we established ourselves as a well-known DACA provider in Brooklyn, and we continue to receive DACA and other immigration referrals from community-based organizations and literacy providers, as well as from former DACA clients referring their friends and family members to us. While many New Yorkers with “simple” expanded DACA cases can be helped by community based organizations and programs like Action NYC, we stand ready to help those with cases made more complicated by interactions with the criminal justice system and/or immigration enforcement.

Indeed, BDS and other public defender offices like ours are in a unique position to provide complex immigration legal services for clients who may not otherwise seek immigration assistance but come to us by way of the criminal and family court systems.

To give you an example, BDS’s Padilla practice advises BDS clients facing criminal charges on the ramifications of any plea or conviction on their immigration status.[2] When our Padilla attorneys screen clients we frequently identify family members of our clients who are eligible for DACA.  Consequently, even if the clients who we represent in our criminal defense/family defense cases are ineligible for DACA themselves (either because of a pending case, past criminal history or because they already have status), we are able to flag for clients that their family members are eligible and may call our office for an intake.  Other times, once we start speaking with the client about his or her immigration status, the client will ask if they can send their family members to us for help, too. Thus, through our robust Padilla representation, BDS attorneys and BIA Accredited Representatives earn the trust of our clients who may then actually confide in us to help their family members come out of the shadows and apply for DACA.

Current Climate for Potential DACA Applicants

Since the new administration took office in January, we have had to be far more cautious about submitting DACA applications, especially for young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system.  We were happy to hear the news just this past Friday that DACA is apparently safe, at least for the moment.[3] We hope to see more qualified individuals interested in applying for the program.

Until recently, we had a pretty steady stream of referrals from adult education programs funded by the city. Students would be identified by their teachers as being possibly DACA eligible and referred to us for legal assistance. Recently, however, we have noticed a bit of a downtick in these types of referrals.  This may also be attributable to the general chill within immigrant communities after the presidential election.

BDS DACA Client Story

Sophia is a 19-year-old young woman from Mexico who has been living in the U.S. since she was 9 years old.  She submitted a DACA application with the assistance of an unqualified tax preparer and was denied.  Fortunately I picked up her case through the Youth and Communities Project and we were able to submit a second application on her behalf, which was approved just before she graduated from high school.

Sophia was an exemplary student in the New York City public school system.  A letter of support from her high school social studies teacher states: “While many of our American-born students may take their education for granted, Sophia does not.  They reality of her circumstances does not allow for this because she knows she has the most to gain from the American education system, but also, the most to lose if she is not able to continue her studies.”

Sophia just finished her first year at Guttman Community College in Manhattan and hopes to transfer to John Jay or Hunter College.  She is pursuing an Associate’s degree in Liberal arts & Humanities.  While this is a very positive development for Sophia, her lack of immigration status means she is ineligible for financial aid. In her words, “Scholarships are hard to get, which makes it ten times harder for me since many require community service, and I already work 3-4 days a week. I am a full time student so it is very challenging. My parents have been saving money and I am enrolled in payment plans in order to pay the tuition. I work in order to buy books, use the money for tuition and any other expenses that come across.”

Sophia is representative of many of our young clients who suddenly find themselves the only members of their family with employment authorization.  They struggle to balance the desire to help support their families financially with their desire to pursue higher education.  Young people in New York should not be forced into the role of primary breadwinners for their families, and we encourage City Council to do everything you can to help support students like Sophia who want nothing more than to pursue their dreams in this country.

Resolution 1484-2017

Sophia’s story, and that of dozens of other BDS clients, exemplify why the City Council should adopt Resolution 1484-2017 calling on the state and federal government to extend protections for undocumented youth by passing the New York State DREAM Act of 2017 at the state level, as well as the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act of 2017 at the federal level.

New York City does not set federal immigration policy or determine statewide funding for higher education. However, the City Council can use its moral authority as a sanctuary city to call for improved opportunities for all New York residents, no matter where they were born. We will all be stronger and safer if our young people have the opportunity to work and go to school. We strongly urge you to support this resolution to send a powerful message to the state and federal legislatures that New York City believes in the strength and possibility of our immigrant communities.


Please feel free to contact me at lbuller@bds.org or 718-254-0700 ext. 309.

[1] It is our understanding that future RFPs related to DACA/DAPA services will be made through the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs and/or Action NYC.

[2] In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky that the Sixth Amendment requires defense counsel to provide affirmative, competent advice to a noncitizen defendant regarding the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. Absent such advice, a noncitizen may raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).

[3] See, e.g., Michael D. Shear & Vivian Yee, ‘Dreamers’ to Stay in U.S. for Now, but Long-Term Fate is Unclear, N.Y. Times, June 16, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/politics/trump-will-allow-dreamers-to-stay-in-us-reversing-campaign-promise.html?_r=0.



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.



Zoey Jones – Immigration Attorney


Presented before

The New York Police Department (NYPD)

Public Hearing on

Police Department U Visa Certification Proposed Rule

January 12, 2016

My name is Zoey Jones. I am a practicing immigration attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as other civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, for 40,000 clients in Brooklyn every year. I thank the NYPD for the opportunity to testify about the proposed rule on NYPD U visa certification.

Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 6,500 immigrant clients.  In 2015 alone, we handled more than 1500 immigration matters across a full spectrum of services. We defend detained clients facing deportation, 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.

We commend the NYPD and Commissioner Bratton for proposing rules on the U visa certification request process. We look forward to collaborating with the Department to ensure that New York’s immigrant residents feel empowered to work with the NYPD to protect themselves and their communities from victimization.

We believe a streamlined process like the one articulated in the proposed rules will help to ensure that a greater number of deserving applicants are able to obtain the immigration relief that they are entitled to under the law.

We hope that any adopted rules will serve to expedite NYPD responses to requests for certification and increase transparency about the decision making process. However, we believe that there is room for clarification in the rules. This testimony identifies additional considerations for the rulemaking committee, including creating an expedited response process for detained immigrants, ensuring that decision makers clearly articulate a reason for denials, and fostering greater transparency throughout the process.

Expediting NYPD Responses for Detained Immigrants

A 45-day decision rule like that articulated in §22-03 would be a vast improvement over the current processing timeline. Our office submitted certification requests nearly a year ago in a number of cases for which, as of the date of this testimony, we have yet to receive a response. Delay in the issuance of U visa certifications creates great uncertainty for many parties involved in the immigration system, including courts, judges, attorneys and immigrants.

This uncertainty is most prejudicial to individuals who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For detained immigrants, prompt receipt of a U visa certification can mean the difference between continued residence in New York City and deportation.

Immigration judges are under no obligation to grant indefinite adjournments to individuals awaiting U visa certifications, regardless of the extent or importance of his or her cooperation with law enforcement.  To the contrary, immigration judges are under constant pressure—created by both immigration prosecutors and severe immigration court backlogs—to resolve cases quickly. The law enforcement certification is the first step in the lengthy U visa application process – a U visa application cannot be filed without a certification. If a detained immigrant cannot obtain a decision on a U visa certification promptly enough to satisfy the immigration court, this delay could result in that individual’s deportation.

The Department can play an important role in limiting unnecessary and harmful detention and deportation by responding promptly to requests for certification from detained immigrants, in particular.

We believe that the Department should create a streamlined process for immigration detainees that would allow their cases to take priority over other persons requesting certification. Individuals requesting certifications from the Department should specify in their letter requesting certification whether they are a detained immigrant, and requests submitted by detained immigrants should be given priority. This would allow the NYPD to allocate resources in the most efficient manner possible.

We hope to collaborate with the Department to ensure the NYPD U visa certification team has the necessary resources to process requests efficiently. We are cognizant of the high volume of cases that our criminal and immigration courts process on a daily basis. We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with your staff to determine how legal service providers can help to facilitate prompt responses to certification requests, particularly in the case of detained immigrants facing deportation.

Reasons for Denials

We applaud the proposed rules for mandating that “[i]f the request is denied, the Department will also notify the applicant of the basis for the denial and the process for appealing the denial (“Department denial letter”).” Proposed NYPD Rule §22-03. The creation of an appeals process is also promising.

The following cases illustrate the need for a more thorough explanation of the denials of certification:

  • Denise was a victim of domestic violence in 2003. Denise reported the crime and her partner was arrested but he failed to appear in court. Our office initially made a request to the NYPD for certification but Denise’s request was denied because there was an arrest. We were instructed to make the request to the District Attorney’s Office. BDS made a request to the District Attorney, who rejected Denise’s request for certification because they could not find the file. The D.A. referred our office back to the NYPD. Our office then made a second request to the NYPD. The Department’s denial letter merely stated “statute of limitations.”

An appeals process will be useful in challenging a denial such as the one in Denise’s case. However, the initial denial letter should be sufficiently clear so as to allow the applicant or her attorney to challenge the denial, where appropriate, or accept the denial without pursuing a fruitless appeal.

In other cases, we believe that our clients’ certification requests have been denied because of their criminal records. It is our position that it is more appropriate and more efficient to allow the Department of Homeland Security to determine when denial of a U visa is appropriate based on the applicant’s criminal record, rather than refusing to issue law enforcement certifications due to criminal convictions.

The instructions for the law enforcement certification (Form I-918, Supplement B) state: “You should use Form I-918, Supplement B, to certify that an individual submitting a Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status, is a victim of certain qualifying criminal activity and is, has been, or is likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of that activity.” The law enforcement certification form does not request information concerning the applicant’s criminal record, and the instructions do not request that the certifying agency consider the applicant’s criminal record when determining whether to issue a certification.

This is likely because a U visa applicant’s criminal record, if one exists, will always be carefully scrutinized by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, before a decision is made about whether to grant a U visa. As part of the U visa application, the applicant is required to disclose all arrests and submit documentation proving the outcome of each arrest. U visa applications are routinely denied due to the applicants’ failure to submit all required criminal documentation, or due to the nature and/or extent of the applicant’s criminal record.

For these reasons, we encourage the Department not to deny certification requests based on the applicant’s criminal record.

Increased Transparency

The current U visa certification process lacks transparency. The proposed rule takes steps towards making this process more transparent, but we believe the Department can go further.

The Department should publish its internal policies and procedures related to the Department’s decision whether or not to certify a crime victim’s cooperation with law enforcement. For example, if the policy is that applicants must first seek certification from the prosecutor if the case proceeded beyond an arrest, then that information should be publicly available. Then legal service providers will not waste the Department’s time and resources making a request without first seeking certification from the District Attorney. In cases such as that of Denise, where the District Attorney advised the victim to seek certification from the NYPD, the applicant may they make the request from the NYPD at the request of the D.A.

Most important, legal service providers who are well versed on the complex nuances of the law should be invited to speak with the NYPD to help the Department to craft internal policies and procedures that would ensure the most efficient and just outcomes in every case.

Further, it would be enormously helpful to all parties involved if the NYPD would provide on its website a contact phone number and email address for a point person at the Department on this issue. The current guidelines list only the address for the Domestic Violence Unit. This lack of information makes it nearly impossible for attorneys and immigration court personnel to inquire about the status of an immigrant’s request for certification. As noted above, this would be enormously helpful to backlogged immigration courts (who could schedule court dates for after the date when the NYPD expects to respond to the request) and immigrants themselves who are making difficult decisions about whether or not to continue fighting deportation.


BDS is grateful to the Department for seeking to clarify the U visa certification process. We make the following recommendations that we think would help to facilitate the process:

  1. Create an expedited processing timeline for certification applicants in immigration detention.
    • Allow applicants to designate in their letter whether they are a detained immigrant.
    • Work with legal service providers to ensure that immigration detainee requests for law enforcement certifications are processed efficiently.
  1. Provide more thorough explanations for denials that would allow immigrant applicants to better understand if they should appeal, and not deny certification requests due to the applicant’s criminal record, as this record will already be thoroughly scrutinized by the Department of Homeland Security before a decision is made about whether to grant a U visa.
  1. Increase transparency in the certification request and decision making processes:
    • Publish the Department’s internal policies and procedures that guide decisions as to whether or not to deny an applicant’s request for certification after input from legal service providers about whether said policies comport with state and federal law.
    • Invite legal services providers to collaborate with the Department to inform the NYPD’s internal policies and procedures.
    • List a phone number and e-mail contact information for the U visa coordinator on the Guidelines for Requesting Law Enforcement Certification for “U” Visas document available on the Department website.

Thank you for your time and consideration of these important issues. BDS looks forward to working with the NYPD to ensure that immigrant communities feel empowered to assist the Department in making New York City safer for everyone.


Cameron Mease – Criminal Defense Practice
The New York City Council Committee on Veterans
Public Hearing on Int. 793
In relation to creating a taskforce to study veterans in the criminal justice system.
September 18, 2015

My name is Cameron Mease and I am a trial attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). Our organization provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council Committee on Veterans, and in particular Chair Eric Ulrich, for the opportunity to testify in support of Intro 793 to create a taskforce to study veterans in the criminal justice system.

BDS is fortunate to have the support of the City Council, as well as other elected officials and the Office of Court Administration, to supplement the services we provide as the public defense office in Brooklyn for people who have been arrested, those who are facing child welfare allegations, and those who are facing deportation. We have developed a model of specialization to best represent certain types of clients, including those with mental illness, adolescents, human trafficking victims, and veterans. Through specialized units of the office we provide extensive wrap-around services that meet the needs of these traditionally under-served clients in a comprehensive way.

I have been a criminal defense attorney at BDS for four years, representing clients facing misdemeanor and felony charges. When BDS’s Executive Director, Lisa Schreibersdorf, asked me to create a new, specialized unit for veterans, I took on this role as a challenge, but also as an honor. My own grandfathers were combat veterans and shared (and didn’t share) with me many of their experiences serving our country. My own personal history, specialized trainings, and my experience getting to know and representing dozens of men and women who honorably served our country give me a unique perspective on veterans involved with the criminal justice system. I hope that my comments are helpful to the Council.

As you may know, veterans are arrested at a greater frequency than non-veterans. Many of the veteran clients I see in my practice have mental health and/or addiction issues that were caused by active duty. The most prevalent and pernicious diagnoses involve Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Individuals with such diagnoses often suffer from depression, impulsivity, and a lack of self-control, leading to situations and behaviors that result in an arrest. Such individuals frequently turn to chemical substances to cope with the symptoms of their conditions, which can lead to allegations of drug possession or charges related to actions committed while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The criminal justice system in general, and our jails and prisons in particular, are neither designed nor equipped to address their needs. I appreciate that Intro 793 stipulates that the taskforce study veterans’ entry into the criminal justice system with an emphasis on how to limit their involvement with the system altogether and help those who are criminal-justice involved transition out of it. I also appreciate that the proposed task force would include at least one representative of an organization providing legal representation to veterans, though this provision should be narrowed to specify that the member be affiliated with a criminal defense organization that serves veterans. My colleagues and I on the defense bar have a unique understanding of how the system treats—and mistreats—our clients.

Ample research, as well as BDS’s direct experience, has demonstrated that people with mental illness do not fare well in jails or prisons. Veterans with PTSD or TBI experience severe trauma due to the fact that the jail environment is likely to trigger their symptoms and greatly exacerbate their mental health. Anybody in our jails and prisons with mental illness is very likely to be subjected to the torture of solitary confinement for behaviors—the vast majority non-violent—related to their conditions. It is our strong belief that special consideration of veterans’ experiences must be integrated into any court proceedings, in order to preclude, or at least minimize, their incarceration.

While veterans’ service, trauma and acute health needs might be unique, the facets of the criminal justice system that oppress them are not. Despite certain recent reforms, our City, State, and Country continue to rely on over-policing and mass incarceration in lieu of effective policies and programs to address mental illness, poverty, addiction, homelessness, immigration, and widespread invidious discrimination. These issues disproportionately impact New York’s veteran communities. For example, the ongoing war on drugs continues to ensnare large numbers of veterans. (Of course, there is significant overlap between veterans and communities of color in New York City.) Many of our clients return from service with unmet mental and physical health needs, and the resulting pain and anguish often leads to illicit drug use. As with other populations, law enforcement intervention and incarceration are among the most expensive and least effective approaches to veterans’ use of drugs. The same can be true with other offenses; incarceration and criminal records destabilize our veteran clients and their families and communities.

Prior to Arrest

For our clients with mental health issues, the disruption of treatment and the path to possible decompensation begins at the moment police respond to the scene. This is why we believe that diversion is an essential starting point for reforms. BDS believes that the greatest good can be achieved by deciding not to arrest individuals with mental illness if there is another safe and viable alternative, particularly for low level offenses. In New York City today, when a 911 call comes in requesting emergency assistance for what is commonly referred to as “Emotionally Disturbed Person,” or EDP, the options of the first responder teams, which are typically comprised entirely of police, are very limited. These first response teams should be expanded to include social workers and/or mental health clinicians trained to conduct critical assessments during moments of crisis. Additionally, the police should be better trained to interact with potentially mentally ill people and their families in a manner that de-escalates the situation. Linkages to treatment and hospitals or other service referrals should be the first steps before a consideration of further involvement by the criminal justice system. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NYC Safe plan might help to make that a reality, but implementation will be challenging if we continue to overuse the police to respond to community needs. If people are identified as having a mental illness, calling in community-based services, not the legal system, is the best first option whenever possible. The impact of incarceration on public health cannot be overstated; being locked up negatively affects family and community ties, employment, housing options, treatment access, and the experience of incarceration often leads to new trauma.

From Arrest to Arraignment

Generally, when our clients are arrested, they spend about 20 hours at the precinct and at Central Booking before they are arraigned by the court. This is true of veterans and non-veterans alike. During this time, most of our clients have not received any of the medication they were taking in the community. Many clients with health needs are treated dismissively by police officers. Only those people with what are deemed critical health care needs typically have a chance to gain access to hospital care. In an attempt to gain more information about this process, our office filed a Freedom of Information Act request with both the FDNY (which provides Emergency Medical Services screening at bookings) and the NYPD nearly a year ago with no response. In October 2014, a client of ours, Jasmine Lawrence, 22, died in police custody because of a failure to provide medical care.

Our experience is that police officers are generally unwilling to give any of our clients any medication while they are in custody immediately after arrest. There are hundreds of stories about family members at the precinct begging the officers to give their loved one blood pressure or asthma medicine to get them through the next 24 hours with little success. Last year, an elderly female client of ours died right after her arraignment because she was not provided with diabetes medicine during her stay in custody even though her sister came to the precinct with the insulin. In 2013, Kyam Livingston died in Brooklyn Central Booking after being denied needed medical care by officers who watched her perish rather than call an ambulance. Ms. Livingston was told by officers at Central Booking that they would intentionally delay her arraignment, and that they would “lose her papers” if she continued to make requests for a doctor.

Like Ms. Livingston, our clients who ask to see a doctor or go to the hospital are discouraged and even threatened by officers, resulting in few seeking treatment during this time. These practices are unacceptable on their face and result in serious harm (and even death) on a shockingly regular basis. For people with a mental illness, this unwillingness to meet the medical needs of arrested people results in significant decompensation. We recommend that the Committee review local police department policies and practices at the time of arrest and until the arresting officer turns over custody of the individual. Certainly, any person who needs medication should be able to receive this medical treatment regardless of whether they have been arrested.


Issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and serious mental health issues can leave veterans more likely to have bail set and thus be incarcerated due to poverty. It is very common for clients who have been identified as suffering from serious mental illness at arraignment who are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses to be detained and sent to City jails. Once in pre-trial detention, their options are severely curtailed: They can either endure the hell of Rikers Island for months or years while they fight the charges or, as happens with approximately 95% of cases, accept a plea deal that involves an admission of guilt, whether or not that is true. Studies show that plea deals and other case dispositions are far worse for those in pre-trial detention compared to those who can fight their cases while at liberty. I deeply appreciate that the Council has sought to address this issue, though it is unclear whether the proposals currently in development will help our clients who are charged with Veterans Treatment Court-eligible offenses.

In most cases, our clients should be released pending trial. Otherwise, judges should impose the least onerous form of bail—beginning with an unsecured appearance bond—that is required to secure a defendant’s return to court, and show cause on the record for the use of any form other than unsecured sureties. In addition, Assistant District Attorneys should be required to submit unique written motions requesting bail conditions and explaining the reasons for the request. Lastly, courts should have to reconsider bail at the end of every week of a defendant’s incarceration and consider her inability to pay as a “change of circumstance” that warrants a bail reduction or a conversion to a less onerous form. Ultimately, New York should live up to the American ideal of presumed innocence and end pre-trial detention for all but the most serious cases. Bail reform is one critical step to making that a reality.

Inside the Jails

On February 15, 2014, Jerome Murdough, a homeless former Marine, baked to death in a 101-degree cell on Rikers Island. As the Daily News later reported, his “only crime was trying to stay warm outdoors on a cold night.” He had been arrested for trespassing after being caught in a public housing stairwell. Murdough was reportedly taking anti-psychotic medication with which exposure to heat was contraindicated when he was left alone to die. Jails were never designed to protect the people locked inside, and the culture among DOC staff does not prioritize their health needs. This is no less true for veterans than it is for other incarcerated people. In this case, City investigators found that the officer who was supposed to be making rounds on the floor had falsified her logbook entries, as video showed that she had skipped her tours.

Our social workers and jail services coordinator are able to advocate for our clients who are not receiving adequate care under the supervision of DOHMH in Rikers, but not every incarcerated person has this kind of support. The result is the now frequent horror stories in the media about health care neglect. Our social work team makes hundreds of referrals to DOHMH personnel each year, after being alerted by clients of serious medical needs. These include people whose methadone treatment is interrupted causing painful withdrawals, interruptions to medication regimens due to facility transfers, failure by medical staff to take suicidal ideations and depression seriously, medical staff at Rikers Island informing clients that they need treatment at a hospital and not providing for that transportation, and long delays or lapses in filling orders for glasses or hearing aids. Most of our female clients are concerned about the abysmal OB/GYN care. While our referrals to DOHMH typically provoke a speedy response, on several occasions in the past year alone we have had to make four or more contacts with DOHMH to secure treatment for a serious condition such as asthma, seizures or diabetes. Pressure by outside advocates to ensure basic healthcare should not be the procedure relied upon by medical staff to meet the needs of their patients, many of whom lack any supportive structure on the outside.

Contrary to the reports of DOHMH, many of our clients report that they do not promptly receive a mental health evaluation or medications once committed to City custody. In addition, there is not an appropriate range of mental health care options for people who are noticed to have needs by medical staff. Medication remains the only “treatment” for nearly all of our clients in City jails irrespective of mental health needs that require other interventions. Our clients report that they rarely receive the opportunity for group or individualized therapy, dual-diagnosis therapy, or treatment from specialists in trauma, post-traumatic stress, sexual violence, adolescence, family or other discrete fields, even though such modalities are considered part of, not supplemental to, medically appropriate treatment. One client summed it up like this recently: “Once a month someone renews my pills and asks me if I want to kill myself.”

There are inherent problems with the provision of medication, as well, which significantly impact incarcerated veterans with mental illness. Medication should only be prescribed by a psychiatrist who spends adequate time with a patient. In our experience, this is not the typical procedure at Rikers Island. Not only are there not enough psychiatrists, the quality of doctors who work there is low. They are limited in what they will prescribe, keeping to low-cost medications that are not necessarily what the client was previously taking on the outside and which may not be medically appropriate. When they do get medication, most clients report disruption from their regimen at some point during their incarceration in city custody. This occurs for a variety of reasons, starting with delay or denial in the first instance. Once on medication, clients report failure by staff to renew medications, difficulty getting medications due to escort restrictions or facility lockdowns, transfer between facilities, and housing restrictions. Many medications must be given consistently to work. Any break can have drastic consequences, such as rapid decompensation, which then results in a cycle of infractions and punitive segregation. Pain medication is frequently withheld by medical staff who accuse our clients of drug-seeking rather than having a reasonable health need.

Confidential treatment space is extremely limited in DOC facilities; many mental health visits are performed at cell-front or in dorms within earshot of other patients or DOC staff. In punitive segregation units these interviews are done through a small slot in a closed cell door through which a clinician and patient must actually yell to each other in order to communicate. Information significant to mental health treatment is at times withheld by our clients as a means of self-protection. Something as routine as discussing the side-effects of a particular medication, such as drowsiness, can create a safety risk if overheard, as corrections officers and other incarcerated people can target those who are vulnerable and potentially unable to defend themselves.

DOC personnel are often part of the failure to deliver quality care. A lack of escorts is frequently given as an excuse for why an incarcerated individual might not get timely care. There is widespread brutality in the jails. Guards frequently assault and otherwise attack our clients, and then threaten them to “hold it down,” which means not seeking medical attention. People have been beaten by correction officers following suicide attempts. In at least one recent case, medical staff did not properly document or treat a person who had had his teeth knocked out, in an apparent attempt to downplay or obfuscate the conditions of brutality.

It is clear that the amount of money being spent to essentially exacerbate the problems of sick, poor New Yorkers, including those who have served our country, should be re-directed into community treatment options to address the health needs of these very same people.

Veterans Courts

The only systemic response to the needs of veterans in New York’s criminal justice system is the recent proliferation of Veterans Treatment Courts, which are currently operating in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and certain other Judicial Districts outside the City. Brooklyn’s Veterans Treatment Court for felonies opened in 2009 and has been expanding its services and incorporating more and more veterans into its eligible pool of participants ever since. Additionally, I have been working with a judge, the Kings County District Attorney and program coordinators on the creation of the Brooklyn Misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court, which will open later this month. Data from the Criminal Justice Agency shows that the vast majority of veterans who get arrested face these lower-level charges. In the course of my representation of veterans accused of criminal acts, I often pursue admission to the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court.  In my experience, the Veterans Treatment Court is far more likely to provide critical avenues for healing and recovery to individuals who deserve, for their selfless service to our great nation, just, non-jail, evidence-based treatment interventions. All that said, veterans courts only hear cases on certain charges and, more consequentially, District Attorneys, who effectively serve as gatekeepers, keep the majority of eligible cases in traditional courts.

Based on my experience, the specialized focus of Veterans Courts is critical to reducing the long-term collateral consequences of a conviction, such as limited employment and educational options, loss of housing, deportation and loss of familial relationships. The targeted intervention of the Veterans Court also increases the likelihood of successful reintegration of veterans into community life, improves my clients’ long-term treatment options, increases treatment compliance once the case is completed and reduces the chances of re-arrest.

Generally, the actors in Brooklyn Veterans Court—the judges, the Assistant District Attorneys and the public defenders—have an enhanced appreciation for the plight of our veteran clients. An Assistant District Attorney with the level of discretion necessary to authoritatively assess cases has been assigned to this task for a number of years and has developed a greater understanding for the unique considerations that go into such an assessment. One of the two judges adjudicating these cases is a veteran himself. Both judges endeavor to exercise great compassion and empathy in adjudicating cases. This is displayed in all of the protocols of the court, including the communication between judge and veteran-offender. For clients who may feel disillusioned or even betrayed by a government system that they once risked their lives to protect, this last piece is essential. When the judge sitting on the bench thanks my client for his or her service to our country during a first appearance in the court, my client immediately stands up straighter and listens more attentively. BDS strongly believes that the success of any treatment court requires that all personnel, from the judge, to the prosecutor, defense attorneys, court officers and service providers, have a shared mission: the creation of a meaningful diversion plan for clients and the facilitation of their success in its completion.

One of the essential functions of the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court is that it is a hub of resources for our veteran clients. These community-based services are really at the core of the solution for our clients and help them build ongoing relationships with the staff and judges in the treatment court. Following the example of other Veterans Courts, including the highly-successful Buffalo court, our veteran clients in the court are assigned a veteran-mentor. These mentors are drawn from a community of veterans, some of whom were previously incarcerated themselves. They are all volunteers and they help guide our clients through their treatment. These mentors are immediately able to connect with my clients due to their similar prior experience. The fact that such mentors are made available to my clients also signals to them that the court is invested in their success.  This fact alone motivates many clients to direct their interest and energies into helping themselves.  Utilizing community resources further widens the network of people that veterans can go to when they feel they need support, even after their cases have concluded. Community mentors are also uniquely well-positioned to engage a veteran client who might otherwise withhold information or be unwilling to seek assistance due to pride or misperceived notions about what they are experiencing.


Veterans leaving correctional facilities, inpatient psychiatric facilities and other court-imposed placements have access to more reentry support services than their non-veteran peers, but the discharge planning varies from facility to facility and many eligible veterans do not receive help. For example, many honorably discharged veterans can apply to the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommence their benefits, but navigating such an immense Federal bureaucracy alone can be difficult, if not impossible, yet that is often what they are left to do. I understand and appreciate that the Council is considering legislation to require people entering New York City jails to receive Connections, the New York Public Library’s reentry guide, which includes information for veterans. I also appreciate that the Council recently passed legislation to “ban the box” on job applications. Certainly, the City could do more. But many of the problems that reentering veterans encounter, like those that all reentering individuals encounter, are inherent to the disruption and destabilization caused by incarceration and involvement in the criminal justice system. Disruptions in health care, including mental health care, can have permanently debilitating effects. Injuries sustained at the hands of corrections officers or other incarcerated people can have permanently debilitating effects. People living in affordable and/or supportive housing for veterans can permanently lose their beds or units while incarcerated, possibly leaving them homeless and at greater risk for committing future crimes. In New York, most criminal convictions cannot be sealed, and thus function as a permanent disability. In fact, given the ease and relatively low cost of obtaining arrest and conviction records from online for-profit databases, even “sealed” cases can leave a permanent stain. As a rule of thumb, people transitioning out of the criminal justice system must navigate the same challenges they faced upon entering it, such as unstable housing, unemployment, and mental illness, though now they must do so saddled with additional burdens and possible disconnections from their support networks.


The drawdown of deployments in our conflicts abroad means the return of many more veterans to New York City. These men and women are coming home from combat situations without the benefit of adequate transition time or programming to help them cope with the enormous adjustment they must make. Many of these individuals have had multiple deployments and are not even aware of the toll that the experiences had on them. Coming home, there is always a chance that they will commit an act that is not really in their nature, but that is rather a result of the stresses they are under or the ways in which they cope with such stress—namely drugs or alcohol. This is why it is more important than ever to expand the use of Veterans Courts and, more generally, to end the over-criminalization and mass incarceration that has torn apart vulnerable New Yorkers, including veterans, and underserved communities in our City for far too long.

The taskforce proposed in Intro 793 should explore all of these issues and more. As a preliminary step, BDS suggests that Council Members and taskforce members visit Rikers Island to see the “mental observation unit” where Jerome Murdough was left to bake to death. We also suggest that you track the path from Murdough’s experiences as a homeless veteran, and his successes and failures in obtaining help from City social services, to his arrest for trespassing and eventual death in DOC custody. You should also visit the Restricted Housing Units—punitive segregation cells for people with mental illness, a form of solitary confinement—at Rikers to observe what happens to veterans and others with mental illness who infract. BDS is ready and willing to join any interested individuals in this investigation and we can share the experiences of our clients to help provide context.

I am grateful for your time and for this opportunity to speak on a topic that has provided the most meaningful experience of my professional career. I hope that you will do all that is in your power to secure effective treatment, rather than counterproductive incarceration and collateral consequences, to help all of the brave New Yorkers who served this country and who deserve compassion, kindness, mercy and our gratitude.



Anca Grigore – Staff Attorney, Civil Justice Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety

Hearing on Int. No. 83, Pro. Int. No. 728A, Int. No. 834, Int. No. 1000 and Reso. No. 1181

Local Laws relating to reporting of CPR and AED certification among NYPD officers, publication of the NYPD patrol guide, use of all-terrain vehicles, and reporting on civil forfeiture, and a resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass Briana’s Law, respectively.


September 15, 2016


My name is Anca Grigore and I am a Staff Attorney in the Civil Justice Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS).  Thank you for this opportunity to address the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety.  BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family, and immigration defense, as well as civil legal services, social work support and advocacy, to tens of thousands of clients in Brooklyn every year. We deeply appreciate the Council’s ongoing efforts to reform our criminal justice system.  While all of the issues addressed by the legislation and the resolution under consideration today impact BDS’ clients, I will focus my testimony on civil forfeiture and police accountability. In short, we support Int. No. 83, Pro. Int. No. 728A, Int. No. 1000 and Reso. No. 1181, and encourage the Council to go further in ensuring that law enforcement does not infringe upon the rights of New Yorkers.



There is a common misconception that all property seized and forfeited by law enforcement belongs to convicted criminals and that it has been used in, or gained through, commission of a crime. The reality is that this process begins at arrest, at a time when the owner is presumed innocent, and these funds and assets are most often retained without court oversight and without due process. BDS’ Civil Justice Practice works case by case to advocate for justice, but the policing-for-profit industry warrants systemic reform. Even clients who can prove that their property was not used for illegal activity often settle—that is, they pay the police to get their own stuff back—due to the coercive dynamics and burdensome procedures described in detail below. It is very difficult to advise a client, even one with a good case, not to pay for an expeditious and guaranteed return of their property. Because settlements are only approved if the client signs a “hold harmless” agreement, preventing any civil lawsuit against the City for abuse of civil forfeiture, there are no realistic avenues to challenge the underlying practices in court. For our clients, the cost is simply too high. Fighting to protect their rights means suffering the unrecoverable loss of time, wages, missed medical appointments, stable housing and more. The reality is that only clients who cannot afford to settle end up pursuing their right to due process and pushing back against the City’s fundamentally unfair policies.


The New York Police Department and local District Attorneys can effectively take New Yorkers’ cash and property at will and can hold it for months on end, even years with very little accountability. These seizures typically occur at arrest, and then the cash or property can be forfeited permanently through criminal forfeiture, in which prosecutors indict the property used or derived from a crime along with the defendant as part of a criminal prosecution. Civil forfeiture is a process in which the property is indicted alone. Importantly, criminal forfeiture is subject to a court order. It can only occur in cases resulting in criminal convictions, and defendants are constitutionally entitled to an attorney, whereas the vast majority of civil forfeitures never even reach a public hearing, and can occur without a conviction. In the rare civil forfeiture cases that receive a hearing, attorneys are not provided to property owners, though our Civil Justice Practice represents BDS clients throughout the process. The differences in these procedures are critical, as is the absence of meaningful oversight or accountability in law enforcement practices.

Every year, the City of New York collects millions of dollars in revenue from civil forfeiture initiated by the New York Police Department (NYPD).[1] Items that are most commonly seized by the NYPD include cash, motor vehicles, computers, and smartphones. This is doubtlessly a very lucrative source of income for the NYPD and New York City. However, this procedure encourages “policing-for-profit,” reinforces community distrust of the police, and disproportionally harms impoverished communities and people of color.

According to an analysis of FBI data by the Washington Post, “law enforcement officers took more stuff that burglars did [in 2014].”[2]

Forfeiture actions are regulated under New York State’s Civil Practice Law and Rules §1311.[3]  They were allegedly designed to “take the profit out of crime”[4] and cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by allowing the government to recover property which constitutes the “proceeds of a crime” or that is an “instrumentality of a crime.” Regardless of the underlying purpose, the statute explicitly provides authority for civil forfeiture actions to be commenced against criminal defendants as well as those not charged with a crime. As a result, the NYPD often seeks forfeiture even where the District Attorney has declined to bring charges. In the rare cases challenging a forfeiture action—often, those cases in which an individual cannot afford to pay to get their own property back—New Yorkers are further hampered by the statute: Rather than requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as is the case in criminal court, law enforcement must only meet the much lower ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard to acquire property.

Seizure and Forfeiture in Practice

As soon as property has been seized, the NYPD civil forfeiture unit is supposed to inform the property owner that they have filed or soon will file a forfeiture action in state supreme court, though this often does not occur. Instead, property owners are given a voucher and, for car seizures, a Krimstock form, with no explanation of what either mean. Months later, they might get a settlement offer in the mail. Either way, the NYPD typically does not wait for a criminal conviction relating to any underlying charges. One repercussion of this practice is that criminal defendants are often unable to testify in the related civil forfeiture proceeding, as any testimony can be used against them in a criminal proceeding.  A refusal to testify can lead to a negative inference against the defendant property owner. This puts a defendant in the dangerous position of either exercising their right to remain silent and potentially losing their property or testifying in the civil case and allowing the District Attorney to use their statements against them in the criminal case.

It is important to note that innocence is no guarantee that property will be returned to its owner.  An organization that relies on forfeiture proceeds has little incentive to return property for free.  We often see cases that result in dismissals of all criminal charges or in a mere non-criminal violation where the NYPD still pursues forfeiture unless the client will pay a settlement fee of anywhere between $500 and $3000.  In addition, many clients do not respond to a civil forfeiture summons or do not understand that they must affirmatively demand release of the property. In such scenarios, the property will be marked abandoned and, if it is not cash, liquidated.

Where forfeiture is not related to an ongoing criminal matter, it can be extremely difficult for the property owner to obtain information about why their property is being held or what accusations are being made due to the lack of discovery from the criminal case. Instead, they are forced to pay and settle the case or wait until the civil forfeiture lawsuit has been commenced to be informed of why the NYPD has been retaining their property. Many do not have the option to wait, such as those who need their car or laptop for work or those who need their cash to pay rent. Even where they are offering settlement, the NYPD is under no obligation to release information about the underlying allegations, their evidence, or the reasons for seeking forfeiture. This lack of basic transparency can make it challenging for an attorney to advise clients in these situations and extremely difficult for an innocent owner to decide what to do.  In practice, most defendants, even those claiming innocence, will agree to pay whatever they can afford if a settlement is offered.

Lack of Oversight & Due Process

In January of 2015, BDS submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the NYPD seeking data on civil forfeiture proceedings against cars. The response, while incomplete, revealed that 2,404 cars were seized under civil forfeiture in 2014 and only 15 such seizures were subject to so-called Krimstock Hearings. These hearings, held by Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, are New Yorkers’ only opportunity for independent review of car seizures, and all owners are entitled to them. Yet few can actually exercise the right in this way for the aforementioned reasons: statements can be used against them in their criminal cases, and many cannot wait so long. While our FOIL only pertained to car seizures, we believe that a similar lack of oversight and due process afflicts the entire system of civil forfeiture.

Experiences of BDS Clients

Example #1 – Property with no nexus to alleged offense

The first example involves the seizure of a car that was not in use, and not even in our client’s possession, at the time of arrest. Our client was a passenger in a friend’s car when it was stopped because an officer alleged the driver had two earpieces in his ears while driving. The stop resulted in a search and our client was charged with sale and possession of marijuana. That car was seized during the arrest, but the property collection did not stop there.

At the time of arrest, the NYPD asked if our client owned a car. They took our client’s keys and wallet. They drove nearly four miles from the site of arrest to our client’s house, knocked on the door, told his younger brother that they had received a phone call that the car was blocking the driveway and seized and held that car, as well. At the station, our client was told that if he did not cooperate with their investigation of the drugs found in the first car, he would not get his own car back.

Due process gave our client the right to a “prompt” hearing, called a Krimstock hearing, for the car’s return during the pendency of the criminal case and any civil case. Indeed, shortly after his arrest, the NYPD informed our client of this right to a Krimstock hearing and explained they would settle the case for $1,000 and a release from liability. Urgently needing his car to commute to and from his job on Long Island but unable to afford the steep settlement fee, our client requested the hearing. However, his hearing was postponed indefinitely when the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) in the criminal case secured an ex parte retention order for the vehicle, effectively ensuring our client could not take advantage of his due process rights to a prompt post-deprivation hearing.

Six weeks after the arrest, the ADA released the car, demonstrating that, in fact, they did not need the car for evidence, and our client was once again permitted to pursue its retrieval with the NYPD. Yet despite the absence of a criminal case related to the car, the NYPD continued its civil forfeiture case. The NYPD was unwilling to provide any basis for their retention of his car or explain how this car was connected to an arrest that occurred in another car miles away. Our client could have requested a new Krimstock hearing, waited up to 20 days for it to be scheduled, and even if it were successful, he would still be facing a civil forfeiture case in state court that could take months to resolve. In the end, he paid a $500 settlement to get his car back.

Example #2 – The Non-Criminal Property Owner

Even when the NYPD and prosecutors agree that no criminal activity occurred and the property should be returned, our clients face the daunting challenge of navigating a system designed to retain property, not to return it.

If criminal charges are dismissed and the DA does not need the property, the owner must still request and receive a written release from the DA before the NYPD will release it. The process of requesting and obtaining this release can take weeks and requires property owners to present themselves in person at criminal court, request the release, and wait to be notified. The assigned DA does not prioritize a case that has ended and has no motivation to assist in the matter. Once the release is acquired, the property owner then has to navigate the NYPD’s own procedures.

We were able to help one of our clients get his car back without paying a settlement fee, but even with an acknowledgment from the DA and NYPD that he should get his car it took more than two weeks to physically acquire the car.

This client was extremely anxious to get his car back, as he relied on it on to drive a sick relative to regular doctors’ appointments, and because of this obligation he had been paying to rent a car while fighting to get back his own. In the end, the client had spent nearly as much on rental cars as it cost him to buy his car in the first place ($1,000). Despite his frustration with the process, the immense gratitude he had for our office was heartbreaking knowing that he was thanking us for the return of his own property that was taken without justification and returned without compensation.

Example #3 – Lost Car

The lack of transparency and accountability in the civil forfeiture process allows the NYPD to lose our clients’ cars with little recourse.  One client’s car was seized at arrest, and officers handed him a voucher with a number on it that was supposed to correspond to his car and potential forfeiture case. The client later took a plea requiring him to install a device on that same car. When he attempted to get his car back in order to comply with his plea, using the voucher number provided to him, he discovered that his voucher number corresponded to a different car and a different name. Both the District Attorney’s office and the NYPD have searched their databases for his car, only to find nothing. The client was then violated for not complying with the requirement to install a device on a car he did not have. He faced jail time for this violation, until several attorneys from BDS explained the situation to the criminal court judge.

The car remains unaccounted for, and neither the NYPD nor the DA’s office has offered any recourse for our client.

Example #4 – Cash Forfeiture

These difficulties and delays are not unique to vehicle forfeiture. We see similar problems with cash forfeiture as well.

For example, a client was arrested with a co-defendant for possession of marijuana. At the time of arrest our client had her phone and about $500 cash on her; the co-defendant had no money. When our client was first brought to the precinct, she saw that the phone and cash were vouchered under her name. After our client was offered and accepted an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD), she began the process of retrieving her phone and cash, only to find that the cash was suddenly vouchered under her co-defendant’s name, whose case was still open.  Two months later, the ADA on her case had yet to respond to requests to release her phone. As for the cash, because it was no longer in her name she faced an uphill battle to get it returned. An NYPD Sergeant explained that our client had to secure another ADA release in her co-defendant’s name, get a notarized letter from the co-defendant relinquishing any claim to the cash, and then make a demand for the cash at the NYPD property clerk window. If she were successful in all this the NYPD would begin an investigation to determine if the cash can be released to her. More than three months later, the client finally was able to get her cash back, but not her phone.

This example illustrates what can happen outside of formal civil forfeiture proceedings. If our client had been unsuccessful in jumping through all these hoops and could not make a claim for the property within 120 days of the termination of her criminal proceeding, it would have been forfeited automatically without the city needing to file for forfeiture. A very real and perverse incentive thus exists to delay the return of property in such cases.

Civil Forfeiture as Extortion of the Poor

Finally, although the civil forfeiture process begins with initial contact with the criminal justice system, there is no right to counsel in any related civil proceeding.  The public defenders who assist in protecting a client’s due process rights and ensuring they are treated as innocent until proven guilty do not have the same mandate with respect to a client’s property. BDS is one of only a few comprehensive indigent legal service providers in the State.

The forfeiture statute is being used as just another threat the NYPD can hold over the heads of impoverished communities and the standard practice of extorting money from even innocent owners is clearly outside of the scope of what the original drafters intended.

Int. 1000 & the Need for Transparency

While fundamental reforms or abolishment of civil forfeiture must be our ultimate goal, establishing transparency in the practice would be an important step forward. With public reporting on the value of cash and property seized, the results of such seizures, and the precincts who are responsible, this legislation shines a spotlight on a notorious and opaque practice. BDS thanks Councilmember Ritchie Torres for his leadership on this issue. We strongly support the bill and urge its swift enactment.

We also hope the City of New York will go further in protecting the rights of New Yorkers. Eleven states have already passed reforms requiring a criminal conviction as a precondition for most or all forfeiture cases.[5] Most recently, California passed legislation in August requiring a criminal conviction precede any seizure worth less than $40,000.[6]  Both New York City and State must finally recognize civil forfeiture as extortion of the poor – an extrajudicial punishment that can and does destroy lives. The Governor and the Legislature should either abolish the practice or follow the lead of other states and prohibit the vast majority of civil forfeitures until and unless a criminal conviction is secured against the property owner. In the meantime, the New York Police Department and local District Attorneys should end the seizure and withholding of cash and property of New Yorkers who are either found or presumed innocent. This change is a prerequisite to improving the legitimacy of police and prosecutors in heavily-policed neighborhoods.


BDS supports Int. No. 83, which would require the NYPD to report on the number of department employees certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and use of automated external defibrillators. We also support Res. No. 1181, which calls upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, Briana’s Law, requiring all police officers to be retrained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation every two years.


BDS supports Int. No. 728-A, which would require the publication of the NYPD patrol guide on the Department’s website. It is wholly unacceptable that the meager accountability standards that exist for police officers would be kept secret for those they are sworn to protect.

Thank you for considering my comments. BDS looks forward to continuing to work with the Council to make our criminal justice system more fair, effective and humane.


[1] NOVEMBER 2015 FINANCIAL PLAN – Revenue 2016 -2019 (Office of Mgmt. & Budget 2015).

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-than-burglars-did-last-year/

[3] N.Y. Civil Practice Law and Rules §1311 (McKinney 2010)

[4] Kelly, James F. (2012) “CPLR 13-A: A District Attorney May Attach the Personal Assets of a Defendant, Prior to Conviction, Without Establishing that the Attached Assets Are the Proceeds of a Crime,” St. John’s Law Review: Vol. 61: Iss. 1, Article 11.

[5] http://endforfeiture.com/institute-for-justice-applauds-nebraskas-sweeping-forfeiture-reforms/

[6] http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-deal-reached-police-seizures-20160804-snap-story.html



Immigration Interns, left to right: Ting Poon, Swapna Reddy, Sneha Dhanapal, Colin Stroud, Amelia Marritz

Family Defense Interns, left to right: Aimee Carlisle, McLean Crichton, Max Selver, Thomas Cordova, Heather Bristol, Sara Ginsberg, Ruthie Chung, Aliya Shain

Criminal Defense Interns, rear left to right: James Fenton, Prescott Loveland, Jonathan Murray; Front left to right: Colleen Corriston, Julie Krumwiede, Heidi Wolfgruber

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.



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:





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.



BDS Attorney Amanda Jack teaches Brooklyn Law School students how to read a RAP Sheet, Monday February 1, 2016

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



Andrea Saenz, Supervising Attorney of BDS' Immigration Practice, sharing a client's story at the rally.

On Monday, November 28, BDS attorneys joined the Legal Aid Society of New York, VOCAL-NY, U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Assembly Member Dan Quart, State Senator Diane Savino, and many others in a rally on the steps of City Hall to urge the Governor to sign a gravity knife reform bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature in June.




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.



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.




Riley Doyle Evans – Jail Services Coordinator


Presented Before 

The New York City Council Committees on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Health, and Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services

In relation to Correctional Healthcare

May 26, 2016

                My name is Riley Doyle Evans and I am the Jail Services Coordinator for Brooklyn Defender Services. BDS provides legal services to tens of thousands of people in Brooklyn each year in criminal, family and civil court proceedings.  As part of our comprehensive mission, BDS provides dedicated supportive services and advocacy to our clients incarcerated in city jails. BDS deeply appreciates the Council’s ongoing efforts to examine and take on issues of our criminal justice system. I especially want to recognize the work of Council Members on the Health and Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committees to improve conditions for people in our city jails.  Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspective.

In New York City today, like elsewhere in the country, our jail system has become the city’s largest mental health service provider. In fact, it is one of the largest mental health providers in the nation.  We agree that adequate, humane medical and mental healthcare delivery in our jail system is of paramount importance.  However, we emphasize that high-needs individuals who pass through our jail system cannot get adequate care in a correctional setting. These individuals should be diverted from the criminal justice system long before being sent to Rikers Island.

BDS attorneys spend their days and nights in arraignments vociferously opposing bail requests from prosecutors who send clients living with serious illness to jail for crimes of survival like jumping a turnstile or stealing toothpaste, or behaviors that likely result from mental illness.  These individuals should never have been arrested, but even after the trauma of arrest, they could be diverted at arraignments, and certainly should not be incarcerated pre-trial on bail.  There is no indication that public safety is served by incarcerating these individuals during the pendency of their case.  Moreover, these cases are indicative of serious shortcomings in public health, housing and other service provision systems in the city. Pre-trial incarceration only compounds this issue. When people are unnecessarily incarcerated, the interruption in medical care, mental health treatment, housing and other essential services they endure have devastating consequences and pose a serious drain on scarce resources in the community.

Although BDS expends significant resources advocating for our clients’ access to medical and mental healthcare while incarcerated, we acknowledge that jail is an inherently pathogenic institution – people who are sick will be made sicker, and those who enter healthy may leave bearing the scars of trauma, neglect, abuse, and mental illness, which they will carry for life.

Intro. No. 852-A

                BDS supports this legislation to bolster access to care for people in city jails, and offers recommendations for amendments.  Sick call represents the most important avenue through which people request medical, dental and mental health treatment in the jails and must be improved.  Presently, sick call involves people signing up on a piece of paper in their housing unit, or informing a correction officer that they wish to sign up.  Correctional staff are responsible for bringing the individuals who have signed up to the clinic to be seen for treatment.  This system has many shortcomings, principally that Corrections Officers are the gatekeepers to medical care and medical staff are never provided the complete list of people who have requested care. Worse, many of our clients have been denied the opportunity even to sign up for sick call. Under the present system, denying access to medical treatment is one of the tools used by corrections officers to punish people in the jails.  Even if someone is able to sign up for sick call, corrections staff can refuse to escort that person to the clinic and medical staff will never know about that person’s condition.

BDS supports Intro. 852-A, and encourages the Council to amend the language to go further in facilitating access to care in the following ways:

  • Mandate H+H to facilitate sick call. As the provider of healthcare services, Health and Hospitals should have sole responsibility for sick call. It is imperative that healthcare staff know who is requesting medical treatment from the beginning in order to help avoid lapses in treatment with tragic consequences.  H+H management of the process will allow more efficient scheduling based on medical need and avoid unnecessarily long wait times.  While DOC staff must be accountable for escorting people to the clinic, removing DOC staff from the actual sick call process will end the practice of denying care as a means of punishment.  We note that if adjustments are made to sick call procedures, it is crucial that any triage that occurs outside of a clinic is conducted in a confidential setting.
  • Specialty Care Timelines: We support the provision that specialty care be delivered in a timely fashion.  We urge the Council to be even more specific in its delineation of timely treatment to reflect the orders of the treating provider – for example “…shall be notified of, escorted and transported to such care within the timeframe ordered by a medical provider.” Specialty care may be routine, urgent or emergent, and in each instance, different definitions of “timely” apply; what is crucial is that the treatment is completed within the timeframes ordered by the provider, as presently reflected in the Board of Correction Healthcare Minimum Standards. In general, Council legislation that allows DOC or HHC complete discretion might not have its intended effect, as the agency will remain legally unaccountable.
  • Escorts: Presently, many jails operate on an “escort only” basis, which provides that any time a person leaves the housing unit for any reason, they must be escorted by a correction officer. Reasons may include family or legal visits, law library visits, educational or other programming, and medical care, among other services.  This places a significant strain on escort officers who may also be inappropriately assigned to additional duties.  We support the Council’s effort to ensure that escorts are available for medical visits.  We believe it may be beneficial to utilize staff more efficiently and create specific teams of officers assigned as “medical escorts” who are supervised by an independent captain. Such a change would ensure escorts are available to facilitate prompt access to medical care and return from the clinic after treatment, and avoid conflicting responsibilities.
  • Staffing: We support the Council’s effort to ensure adequate medical staff are present in city jails.  We recommend an amendment to the language of this bill to clarify that staffing levels among medical staff should be determined and guaranteed by Health and Hospitals and not the Department of Correction.  The bill as written suggests that DOC would make this determination, which would alter current practice in a detrimental way.

Intro No. 1013

BDS supports the Council’s effort to increase the availability of discharge planning services.  We believe discharge planning should be made available to all people in the jail system.  As mentioned above, we believe many people in our jails should be offered services before their arrest, arraignment, and as an alternative to incarceration.  Services offered should be voluntary and not mandated as a condition of release or housing. Additionally, Health and Hospitals already plays an important role in discharge planning for many individuals in the jail system and their expertise should guide discharge planning for all people with medical and mental health conditions who pass through our jail system.  Furthermore, we would welcome enhanced discharge services for individuals released from court, particularly those people with serious medical and mental health needs.

Intro No. 1014

Brooklyn Defender Services supports the Council’s effort to document the shortcomings of our current approach to responding to mental illness through recidivism data. It is important to acknowledge, however, that regardless of the quality discharge planning, all available evidence demonstrates that incarceration itself increases the likelihood that people will be arrested in the future.  As noted above, incarceration is also likely to trigger or exacerbate mental illness.  Jails are fundamentally inappropriate places to deliver mental health treatment, and the compounding traumas that people experience as a result of incarceration cannot be undone through discharge planning.  The primary driver of reform must be made to divert people with mental illness away from the criminal justice system before they are even arrested.

Intro No. 1144

Brooklyn Defender Services supports the requirement that all staff working in city jails receive training in trauma-informed care.  We believe the Council should specify a minimum number of hours of training for all staff to ensure that this training is meaningful and effective.  Furthermore, we believe the Council should require reporting regarding the implementation and utilization of training, rather than leaving it to the Department to ensure compliance.


                Brooklyn Defender Services supports the efforts of the council to improve practices to document medical and mental health conditions of people who are arrested.  We believe continuity of care for this population is essential.  However, we believe certain elements of the introduction as drafted may not be effective. Alternatively, we support the expansion of Health and Hospitals’ role in pre-arraignment screening to all shifts in all boroughs.  In Manhattan, H+H medical practitioners in pre-arraignment screening are able to document injuries, evaluate mental health symptoms, facilitate hospitalizations if necessary, and help ensure continuity of care for individuals with serious needs who enter the jail system.  Additionally, because the providers are medical professionals with access to an Electronic Medical Record, the documentation and treatment they provide will be confidential.  Some concerns about the proposal are listed below:

  • Documenting Arrest Injuries: The proposed language suggests that NYPD officers will be responsible for documenting injuries suffered during arrest. While well intended, this provision seems unrealistic, and may ultimately serve as a tool for NYPD to claim that injuries inflicted during arrest were pre-existing.  If a person is injured during arrest, they should receive treatment at a hospital from a medical professional who will document the injuries in a confidential medical record.  In most cases, the treating hospital will be part of the Health and Hospitals system, thereby facilitating a relatively straightforward transfer of records to H+H Correctional Health Services (CHS).
  • Documenting Mental Health Symptoms: The bill as written suggests that NYPD officers will speculate about the mental health symptoms exhibited during an arrest or in custody. It is inappropriate for a lay-person such as a police officer to speculate about a person’s condition and expect that information to inform care delivered going forward. If a person is exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, they should be offered voluntary treatment by a mental health professional in a clinical setting who will document the symptoms and, if appropriate, provide a diagnosis and treatment plan in a confidential health record. Again, this record may be procured by CHS through H+H or a HIPPA release from the patient.
  • Transmission of Health Information: The bill suggests that health information about people in custody should be transmitted to the Department of Health and Mental Health. The bill should be amended to reflect changes in the healthcare services provider in DOC facilities.  Health and Hospitals Correctional Health Services now delivers care in NYC jails, not DOHMH. Furthermore, the bill suggests that NYPD will transmit healthcare information about people in custody.  This raises concerns about confidentiality of medical information.  NYPD should not be the custodian of confidential health information; diagnoses and treatment should be delivered by medical professionals who then generate confidential records which can be procured through H+H medical records or HIPPA release by the patient.

Resolution No. 461

Brooklyn Defender Services supports the resolution calling for the Federal Government to continue Medicaid coverage for individuals while incarcerated in New York City jails.  In addition to the obvious financial implications of such a change, continuing Medicaid coverage for people in city jails will facilitate safer release for people returning to the community who may presently experience lapses in coverage.  In addition, ongoing Medicaid coverage will obviate a cumbersome and expensive bureaucratic process people currently endure upon release from jail. Finally, Medicaid reimbursement for treatment received in the jails will likely improve quality of care through accountability mechanisms utilized in community hospitals, but presently absent in the jail system.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions about these or other issues at (718) 254-0700 (ext. 225) or rdevans@bds.org.



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.



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’ 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' Kathrine Russell receives the AILA's Pro Bono Champion Award from Jenn Durkin, Vice Chair of AILA-NY.

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.




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.

Read More



New York State Assemblymember Joe Lentol presents a proclamation for National Public Defense Day to Lisa Schreibersdorf.

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.



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.



BDS Founder & Executive Director, Lisa Schreibersdorf

BDS Gala at Skylight One Hanson

Confinement Performance Art

Lisa Schreibersdorf with Honoree Marianne Yang, Esq.

Lisa Schreibersdorf with Honoree Martin Edelman, Esq.

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



Jamie Burke, from Brooklyn Defender Services, and pastor David L. Kelley II from the Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant teamed up on Saturday for a Community Law Program Initiative, a program aimed at helping Brooklynites in need get access to free legal services. Photo by Rob Abruzzese.

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



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



Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson recently announced his intention to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests, a proposal he described as in the interest of justice. Brooklyn Defender Services staff rallied with other advocates such as VOCAL-NY and the Drug Policy Alliance to push Thompson to make good on his plan, which, if implemented, will reduce the single most-common arrest in New York City.  Low-level marijuana arrests are a key entry-point for many young people into the criminal legal system and too often are accompanied by the life-long consequences of a criminal record.



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 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:




The recent in media coverage of the abuses of law enforcement and corrections department staff elicit a range of emotions, particularly among those of us working in the criminal justice system who hear about and witness these incidents on a daily basis. On the one hand, the gut-wrenching depictions of violence — of Department of Correction guards punching into unconsciousness an already handcuffed person or of NYPD officers choking a man to death without any apparent evidence of resistance — brings one to the edge of despair in contemplation of the devastation such practices bring to New Yorkers and their families, many of them among the most vulnerable residents in our city — homeless, indigent, drug-addicted, mentally ill. Yet on the other hand, the sober and extensive coverage of these issues in the mainstream press gives us hope that our society, our city, may be on the cusp of demanding long-needed change.  Read More at Huffington Post



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.

Read More


 Sergio Jimenez – Director, Civil Justice Practice


Presented before

The New York City Council Committees on Public Housing and Oversight & Investigations

Oversight Hearing Examining DOI’s Report on NYCHA’s Permanent Exclusion Policy

April 24, 2017

I. Introduction

My name is Sergio Jimenez and I am the Director of the Civil Justice Practice at 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 40,000 cases involving indigent Brooklyn residents every year. I thank the New York City Council Committees on Public Housing and Oversight & Investigations, and in particular Chairs Ritchie Torres and Vincent Gentile, for the opportunity to testify on DOI’s investigation of New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Permanent Exclusion policy and Councilmember Gibson’s reporting legislation.




It’s time to eliminate the so-called collateral consequences of criminal convictions — the known and unknown penalties that follow people convicted of crimes, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The American Bar Association has compiled a national list of 38,000 collateral sanctions that people involved in various ways with the criminal legal system face on top of their court mandated sentences. There are more than 2,200 such penalties in New York state alone, extending to nearly every facet of daily life — employment, licensers, property rights, contracts, citizenship, education, voting, housing and family or domestic rights.

Read More at Huffington Post



Clarence Threlkeld


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



From left to right: Ronald Schneider, Kevin Williams, Jolanda Porter

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.”



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

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

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

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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 left to right: 1. Ashley Alger, NYU; 2. Morgan Taggart-Hampton, NYU; 3. Emily Davis, CUNY; 4. Elise Funke, Columbia; 5. Eliza Vasconcellos, NYU; 6. Zach Travis, NYU; 7. Soraya Ghebleh, Vanderbilt; 8. Israel Appel, Brooklyn Law; 9. Seth Grantier, Brooklyn Law; 10. Julie Doyle, Cardozo; 11. Mairead Kennelly, Fordham. Not pictured: Yujia Feng, NYU; Leena Odeh, Northeastern



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.


In this time of giving, please consider making a donation today to support BDS’s continuing advocacy through public outreach, community education, media relations, and our direct impact on the laws and policies that affect our clients.

As we enter the new year, we will build on our accomplishments in 2015:

  • Brooklyn Defender Services made significant contributions on the issue of mass incarceration and racism in the justice system through public outreach, community meetings, working with elected officials, working with the media, writing op-eds, and partnering with grassroots organizations. We testified before the New York City Council and the New York State Assembly more than 15 times combined on issues related to bail, solitary confinement, jail conditions, adolescents in the criminal justice system, discovery reform, abuse by prison officials and the intersections of the criminal justice system with survivors of human trafficking and veterans.
  • BDS’s New York Immigrant Family Unity Project won a precedential ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a decision that now assures a bond hearing and the chance at liberty for immigrants detained in proceedings in New York for more than six months.
  • BDS’s Family Defense Practice is actively engaged with other parent and child advocacy organizations and ACS to advance important reform objectives such as reducing the number of children who enter foster care and improving visiting practices.

To make a contribution, click the Donate button below or send a check to:

Brooklyn Defender Services
177 Livingston Street, 7th Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201



Happy holidays from Brooklyn Defender Services!

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.



BDS Reentry Specialist Wesley Caines speaks at Beacon Prison Action panel to discuss conditions at Fishkill Correctional, February 23

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.”




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.



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.




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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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.




From left to right: Cameron Mease, Staff Attorney & Veterans Defense Coordinator, Brooklyn Defender Services; Dawn Ryan, Attorney In Charge, Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Criminal Defense Office; Mia Santiago, STEP/MBTC Project Director, Criminal Court of New York City (Brooklyn); Martina Parauda, Director, VA, NY Harbor Health Care System; Hon. Melissa C. Jackson, Administrative Judge, Criminal Court of New York City; Hon. Craig S. Walker, Presiding Judge of BMVTC; Representative from the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs; Hon. Michael J. Yavinsky, Supervising Judge, Kings County Criminal Court.

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.”


June 23, 2016

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

Re: Support for S6483 (Savino) / A9042 (Quart)

Dear Governor Cuomo:

As the Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services (“BDS”), I write to respectfully urge you to sign S6483 (Savino)/A9042 (Quart) into law. This bill simply clarifies the definitions of switchblade knives and gravity knives to exclude ordinary folding knives that are commonly sold on-line and in hardware stores to workmen and artisans, and which only specially trained law enforcement officers are able, often only after several tries, to flick open by exertion.

BDS is a comprehensive indigent legal service organization that provides multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and civil legal services, and social work support to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.


Currently, possession of a switchblade or a gravity knife is prohibited under Penal Law § 265.01 (1), which makes possession of such knives a “strict liability” crime. In other words, simple possession of these knives, even without any criminal intent, is a crime. Possession in the Penal Law is not limited to one’s person; it encompasses possession in one’s car, closet and even toolbox. Under current case law, a person may be guilty of a misdemeanor for possessing a commonly-sold folding knife, even if that knife is not meant to be opened by the force of gravity, and even though the possessor is unaware that the knife could be opened in that manner.


This legislation would narrow the definition of switchblades and gravity knives to clarify that they “do not include a knife that has a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure and that requires exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist, or arm to overcome the bias toward closure and open the knife.” This definition excludes ordinary folding knives which are not meant to be opened in the manners typical of switchblades or gravity knives. It would conform the law to match people’s very reasonable expectations about carrying tools and also to send a message that the residents of this state deserve to go about their law-abiding lives in peace. It is important to remember that, under this legislation, any and all assaults, robberies or other crimes in which knives are used would remain felony offenses and punishable with years in prison.


The need for this legislation is clear. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers 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.” BDS represents thousands of clients every year who are charged with the relevant offense, Criminal Possession of a Weapon on the Fourth Degree (CPW4), including stagehands, carpenters, and movers in uniform who are caught with box cutters. As always, it is critical to remember that those who are arrested for any reason face not only a prospective sentence handed down by a judge, but also many other consequences that impact individuals, families and, indeed, entire communities, including job loss, deportation, curtailed access to education and more. ‘Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree’ does not look good on a job or college application.

On June 3, 2016, WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer Show included a segment on gravity knives. Each and every one of the callers had a personal story of being negatively impacted by our state’s outdated gravity knife law. When closing the segment, Mr. Lehrer noted his phones were ringing non-stop, and that he could continue taking calls from people with similar stories all day. Norman of Huntington, Long Island, called in with the following story:

“My son had a similar experience to your prior caller. We live in Huntington in Suffolk County. He works for a kayak company – Glacier Bay Sports – where he did lessons, demonstrations for rescue, untying boats, cutting boats free, etc. He was visiting some friends at NYU. At 12 o’clock at night, he gets stopped by a cop in a squad car. They see the clip that holds [the folding knife] in his rear pocket. They ask to see it. He says sure. He shows it to them. They don’t even test it. They just handcuff him and throw him in the squad car and two days later he’s out of jail. After $4,000 in legal fees and a letter from his employer indicating that it was mandatory for him to carry this for safety purposes, etc., case dismissed. It was totally absurd. Losing days’ work. Losing two nights in jail. We couldn’t even find out where he was.” (Note: Norman’s son was not a BDS client.)

When New York criminalized “gravity knives” in the 1950’s, the term was used to describe large switchblade-like knives. However, the definition included in the law encapsulates all knives that can be opened by gravity or a centrifugal force. In modern times, New York City law enforcement officials and others throughout the state often use the law to arrest and prosecute individuals in possession of pocket knives, utility knives, box cutters, and other items that are commonly used in many professions. A 2014 Village Voice analysis found 60,000 gravity knife prosecutions in the last decade. Most cases investigated by the newspaper involved instruments used for work, such as a stagehand’s utility knife, and most involved Black and/or Hispanic New Yorkers. This tracks with BDS’ experience. Our criminal defense attorneys report that nearly every client arrested on this charge is carrying a knife for work. Often, they are maintenance workers, stock room attendants, or other types of laborers. Unfortunately, many cannot obtain verification of their employment because their work is unsteady or informal. The vast majority of BDS clients charged with the relevant offense are Black and/or Hispanic. Case dispositions vary from client to client, but all are deeply impacted. They suffer the trauma of arrest and contact with the system, including overnight detention in a filthy holding cell and the humiliation of being churned through arraignments and, very often, allocution to a plea deal involving an admission of guilt – of criminality, essentially. They can also lose their jobs and their children, and even face deportation because of these arrests. The criminalization of simple possession of work tools further poisons the relationship between law enforcement and the community and expands the dragnet of our criminal justice system, all without any public safety interest.


The following stories provided by BDS attorneys feature individuals who would have been spared arrest under this legislation:

Mr. B was an 18 year-old freshman math major with a merit scholarship at Pace University when he was pulled over for having tinted windows. Peering inside the car, the officer found a folding knife that Mr. B, who worked at an ice skating rink, used to cut laces. Mr. B, who had no criminal history and zero arrests to date, was arrested and detained. His attorney was able to verify his work-related use of the knife and persuaded the District Attorney’s office to offer an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD) with immediate sealing to protect his scholarship. Nonetheless, untold numbers of online for-profit databases may maintain records indicating that he was arrested for “Criminal Possession Weapon-4th: Firearm/Weapon,” and Mr. B has since struggled to find employment, suspecting that employers are consulting these databases.

Mr. W, a green card holder, was working for a large moving and storage company in Brooklyn when he was stopped and frisked. He had not consented to the search, but the officer said he matched the description of a robbery suspect. She found a box cutter in his pocket and arrested him for CPW4. He was wearing a mover’s uniform, including his company sweatshirt, and was able to provide contact information for his employer. The complaining witness who called in the robbery told police officers that Mr. W was not the one who did it. However, his gravity knife case was open for seven months because the prosecutor insisted on a plea deal that included a weapons charge that would trigger deportation. Fortunately, due to our advocacy, the case was ultimately resolved with an immigration-safe plea deal, but he had already lost his job after missing work for court dates. Altogether, he had an open criminal record indicating an arrest for CPW4 for more than a year, and again, a potentially permanent record accessible through for-profit databases.

T, a 17 year-old adolescent had just gotten a job at a hardware store. He was in his work clothes when he was stopped on the subway because a knife clip was showing in his back pocket. He had used the knife to open boxes at the hardware store, which also sold the knives. He was arrested and incarcerated because he was unable to pay bail. While at Rikers, he was assaulted and missed his Regents Exams before his family was able to pay a bail bondsman to bail him out. With T at liberty and able to fight his case, prosecutors offered him an ACD and he accepted.

Mr. R, a man, had a fifteen year-old conviction for drug sales and had successfully completed parole. He had trouble getting jobs because of his criminal record, but was eventually able to get and maintain a job for a construction company. After police officers spotted a knife clip in his pocket, he was arrested and charged with possession of a gravity knife. Because of his earlier conviction and court history, the prosecutors were able to convince the judge to set a high bail and Mr. R was incarcerated at Rikers until he eventually plead guilty to the weapons charge just to get out of jail. By that point, he had lost his job.

Mr. S, a 33 year-old maintenance worker at Brightside Academy, an early childhood education center, was arrested and charged with gravity knife possession and low-level marijuana possession. Prosecutors insisted on Misdemeanors for both charges and Mr. S lost his job after the school received a letter informing them that he was charged with “possessing a weapon/firearm.” After repeated requests to the Kings County District Attorney’s office, we were able to test the knife and found it to be a locking folding knife and not a gravity knife. Prosecutors then agreed to dismiss the case, and the client successfully sued for malicious prosecution and unlawful seizure, but his employer would not rehire him.

J, a 22 year-old, was employed in his father’s auto repair shop when he was stopped for a traffic violation. Police officers conducted an illegal search and found a knife under his seat. J told the officers that he used the knife to open boxes at work, but he was arrested and charged with possession of a gravity knife, anyway. One of our attorneys met with the arresting officer and the prosecutor in the case to view the knife. After a few failed attempts, the officer was able to flick open the knife, but only with a significant exertion of force. J had never even tried, much less succeeded, in opening the knife this way. (This is very common in gravity knife cases.) Yet prosecutors refused to outright dismiss the case, and J was sentenced to three full days of community service.

Mr. J, a 25 year-old construction worker, was stopped and arrested when the police officer found an ordinary folding knife in his pocket. He was detained overnight and held at Rikers Island for two days before his mother could pay his bail. After missing additional days of work for multiple court dates as he fought to prove his innocence, he lost his construction job. His case is ongoing, and the enactment of this law would help Mr. J and thousands of other New Yorkers today.

All of the BDS clients cited above were listed as Black and/or “Hispanic” on their arrest reports.


S6483 (Savino) / A9042 (Quart) would end a grave injustice and make New York State a better place to live and work. On behalf of our clients, I request that you sign it into law immediately.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Jared Chausow at jchausow@bds.org or (718) 254-0700 ext. 382.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments.


Lisa Schreibersdorf
Executive Director
Brooklyn Defender Services


Dear Speaker Heastie:

As the Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), I write regarding a package of legislation relating to sex offenders that recently passed the New York State Senate, and is currently under consideration in the New York State Assembly. BDS provides innovative, multi-disciplinary, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 40,000 indigent Brooklyn residents annually. In addition to providing our clients with a zealous defense and wraparound services, we endeavor to share our on-the-ground experience with the implementation of the laws of our City and State to inform the work of policymakers and enhance public policy.

On February 26, the New York State Senate passed nine bills that generally augment existing restrictions on the movement and residence of individuals convicted of sex offenses, expedite risk level determinations, and impose a reporting mandate on school districts. While I have concerns about each piece of legislation, I will focus my comments on those which relate to broadening restrictions on subject offenders’ movement and residence.

One key provision that would be expanded by S.1520/A.5165, S.2950/A.752, S.3926/A.1658 and S.2981/A.889 prohibits subject offenders from “knowingly enter[ing]” any area within 1000 feet of a school or child-care facility. Contrary to the way it is often described, this provision is far broader than a residency restriction—it is wholesale exclusion from any densely populated area, like New York City. The prevalence of these exclusion zones effectively precludes many subject offenders from legally entering their home neighborhoods, and even boroughs.

Such wholesale exclusions substantially burden New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. First, the exclusion statute substantially interferes with subject offenders’ First Amendment right to maintain intimate associations with their Brooklyn-rooted families without in any way furthering the State’s interest in preventing prospective sex abuse against children.

Second, the exclusion statute violates the substantive due process rights of all subject offenders to travel to and around their homes for any innocent purpose—to be with their children, to work or obtain medical or rehabilitative services, or to otherwise visit the State’s most populous regions—with no determination that such banishment even marginally serves a compelling government interest in child safety.

Finally, the exclusion statute constitutes an ex post facto punishment, effectively increasing the penalty imposed for an individual’s crime by exiling her from her home and community well after imposition of a sentence that included no such banishment. The Constitution’s ex post facto clause prohibits an increase in punishment for a crime after it was committed—which is exactly what any expansion of the existing exclusion would do. Indeed, a New York Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn recently ruled that the statute was retroactively punitive as written, without further enhancement, and was thus being applied in violation of the Constitution.

The substantial burden on constitutional rights imposed by these enhanced restrictions would only be permissible if they furthered New York’s interest in protecting children, but exclusions and residency restrictions are actually counter to public safety. The stated purpose of the exclusion statute is to prevent high-risk sex offenders from committing sex crimes against children. This is an important goal for all of us. I am a parent and I understand as well as anybody the urge to protect one’s child. That said, the exclusion statute is not an effective, or even rational, means of achieving this result.

Studies highlighted by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (“DCJS”), the State agency responsible for administering the Sex Offender Registry, show that most offenders who molest children molest family members and close acquaintances. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 93% of sexual assault victims under the age of 17 were assaulted by someone they knew. Thus, opportunities for the most likely offenses against school-aged children are not diminished by keeping offenders away from schools, and the prohibition does not advance that purpose.

Furthermore, statistical research demonstrates that most sexual assaults take place in a home, and not in a park or on a school ground. Only 11% of sexual assaults on victims aged 12 and older occurred on school property or in a yard, park, field or playground; and only 16% of sexual assaults on youth below the age of 12 occurred in a place other than a residence. The Colorado Department of Public Safety found that convicted child molesters in Colorado who committed another sex offense while on probation were randomly scattered throughout the geographical area, and did not seem to live closer to schools or child care centers than those who did not commit another sex offense.

Yet more evidence-based research shows that, among the small group of offenders who do attack strangers, most do so away from their own neighborhoods. A meta-analysis on the journey-to-crime of sex offenders found that on average, most sexual offenders traveled a minimum of one mile from their home to commit their crime. Another study in Minnesota showed that when offenders did make contact with juveniles, they often did so more than a mile away from where the offender lived. Of the few offenders who directly contacted a juvenile near the juvenile’s home, none did so near a school, park, or playground. The study concluded that none of the 224 offenses examined would have been prevented by an exclusion restriction. Thus there is no valid suggestion that New York’s exclusion statute, which prevents offenders from living near schools, will appreciably reduce sex offenses against children. Potential sex offenders travel to areas they do not live to commit such crimes.

In sum, even according to the State of New York’s own criminal justice agency and the studies it proffers to the public, there is not even a suggestion, let alone evidence, that a serious constitutional infringement is justified because an exclusion restriction like the one expanded by these pieces of legislation actually makes children safer or reduces the likelihood of a child sexual assault by a convicted offender—even marginally. To the contrary, by making it more difficult, if not impossible, for offenders to readily comply with rehabilitative post-release conditions—making it harder for them to keep medical appointments, attend treatment programs, check in with a parole officer, and gain and keep employment—all because the appointments, doctors, and jobs are located within 1,000 feet of a forbidden area, the statute likely increases the risk to the public that the designated “high-risk” offenders will re-offend.

In a case recently litigated by BDS attorneys, our client’s primary physician was indeed located in the excluded area. His attorneys and the courts were within the excluded area as well. So was the parole o