Legal Aid Society

Criminal Defense Practice

The Legal Aid Society has been at the forefront of public defense in New York City since 1876—playing a major role in shaping the practice of criminal defense law in America and often setting the standard by which others practice.

What We Do

As New York City’s primary public defender, we believe advocacy must not only take place in the courtroom, but in the communities where our clients live and work. Every day our defenders are engaging clients, community members, and advocacy groups helping to amplify the voices of people affected by a broken criminal justice system.

The expansive reach of the Criminal Defense Practice runs from its dynamic advocacy of clients in court to its presence and partnership in communities. As the primary public defender in New York City, staff zealously and tirelessly work to protect the rights of the most marginalized and disenfranchised in society. Yet our scope, as the country’s oldest and largest public defender, goes beyond any single case or client. Our community engagement, impact litigation, and broader advocacy consistently strive for increased fairness and humanity in the criminal justice system and seeks to reduce the devastating and permanent consequences of system involvement for our clients.

Specialized Programs, Projects, and Units

The Practice includes experienced trial offices in every borough— an Appeals Bureau, a Parole Revocation Defense Unit, a Prisoners’ Rights Project, a Community Justice Unit, and a Special Litigation Unit. In each area, the Practice has developed innovative model projects that garner expertise and push both the practice and discourse of criminal justice forward. In the past year, the Practice represented nearly 230,000 clients in trial, appellate, and post-conviction matters and have pushed for critical reforms that end injustice and discrimination based on race, gender, and poverty.

Direct, Holistic Representation

Day in and day out, our staff works to protect and fight for clients navigating justice system involvement. Our effectiveness stems from our work before, during, and after a criminal case. For example, Practice staff field intake inquiries from clients needing assistance, engage in vigorous bail advocacy, and work with clients’ families to mitigate the larger impact of an arrest. Holistic advocacy is the hallmark of our representation; our attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and social workers explore all angles of allegations and charges, relentlessly seeking to avoid unnecessary, unjust incarceration and connect clients with critical resources that address ongoing needs and obstacles.

Our staff tackles every issue confronting our clients, pressing on questions like the validity of eyewitness identification and the need for access to police disciplinary records. The Practice’s units devoted to DNA and digital forensics evidence and litigation apply the latest advances in order to challenge the government and secure evidence essential to the defense of our clients. We elicit narratives that often include compelling stories of innocence and false accusations, a fuller development of the facts, and critical context. The results are dismissals, acquittals, placement in alternative to incarceration programs, reversals and even the clearance of wrongful convictions decades later.

Advancing Systemic Change

Our courtroom advocacy goes far beyond individual cases. Through the work of our law reform units—the Special Litigation and Prisoners’ Rights Project—we advance systemic change. The Legal Aid Society was the driving force of fundamental reform when we sued, and won, the right for people who are arrested to be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest.

Practice members regularly testify before lawmakers and government agencies to comment on proposed legislation and provide insight on issues affecting our clients. The advocacy has led to important legislative victories. The Criminal Practice provides, in each forum, a critical and frequently overlooked voice, highlighting where reform is necessary.

Members of the Practice worked closely with New York City Council members to formulate a series of bills that would improve bail posting procedures, analyze the issue of ICE officers removing immigrant New Yorkers from our Courts and the need to increased accountability and transparency of the New York City Police Department. In addition to local hearings, members of staff have testified at New York State Assembly and Senate hearings and numerous, state and national panels, commissions and task forces. We believe that work to reform the criminal system is equally as important to the work we do on behalf of our individual clients.