COVID-19 brought into sharp focus the challenges faced by the people we represent and the communities The Legal Aid Society serves. For New Yorkers trapped in a dehumanizing cycle of racism, economic disadvantage, and social injustice, the ramifications of the pandemic were devastating and life-altering. This crisis has been a catalyst for transformative policies and legislation intended to break that cycle. Informed by our direct representation of thousands of clients, our life-changing advocacy in this period illustrates that confronting inequity and injustice is possible where there is leadership, determination, and compassion.
The pandemic underscored the need for housing protections for New York tenants. We fought tirelessly for a federal emergency rent relief program with strong eviction protections. When the Supreme Court struck down New York State’s eviction moratorium, we crafted and helped enact a new law that would survive a legal challenge.
We demanded decarceration as City jails filled to pre-pandemic levels. As a wave of mass absenteeism by corrections officers on Rikers Island combined with a surging Delta variant created a humanitarian crisis, we filed multiple lawsuits and summoned federal emergency intervention. We also successfully lobbied Governor Hochul to sign the Less is More Act, which comprehensively reforms New York’s draconian parole laws and provided relief on Rikers.
We sued the City on behalf of students living in homeless shelters to ensure working WiFi so they could join in remote learning, an educational format forced on the city’s students because of the pandemic. As a result of our settlement, over 240 shelters housing 11,000 school-aged children now have reliable internet access.
These examples represent only a fraction of how The Legal Aid Society responded to the changing needs of our clients due to COVID-19. But we did not stop there.
Through our ongoing advocacy, the City and State approved new laws and policies that will drastically improve the lives of our clients.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is a national model for legalization combining criminal record expungement and investment in communities of color that have borne the brunt of prohibition. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will no longer be able to arrest clients at court without a judicial warrant, and Trump’s Public Charge rule is no more. Because of our efforts, students in foster care will finally have dedicated staff in the NYC Department of Education. New legislation taking effect will center the humanity of our youngest clients as they navigate the foster and juvenile rights systems.
In this report, we share more about the challenges we overcame and the victories we celebrated. At the core of our work are our clients. In what have been isolating times for our communities, we invite you to enjoy these bright achievements while recommitting to our mission to ensure low-income New Yorkers have quality legal representation and thrive in vital aspects of their lives.
Rikers Island has always been synonymous with violence, abuse, and failure. Today, the City’s jails are experiencing a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
Rikers Island has always been synonymous with violence, abuse, and failure. Today, the City’s jails are experiencing a full-blown humanitarian crisis. At least sixteen New Yorkers have died in NYC Department of Correction custody this year. In addition to the spread of COVID-19, a wave of mass absenteeism of corrections staff has exacerbated long-standing problems, creating a hazardous environment for people in custody.
The Legal Aid Society has been a leading voice for decarceration in New York City, and this new crisis has amplified that call. We filed lawsuits on multiple fronts demanding basic access to medical care and transparency about conditions in the jail system’s rebranded solitary confinement units. As counsel for the plaintiff class in Nunez v. City of New York, litigation challenging the systemic brutality by staff against incarcerated people, we petitioned for emergency intervention and secured important first steps to protect people in City jails.
We also successfully lobbied Governor Hochul to sign the Less is More Act, making it possible to release nearly 200 people held on technical parole violations. Less Is More’s impact will be felt beyond the current crisis. It comprehensively reforms a draconian parole revocation system that has helped perpetuate mass incarceration for decades.
As the City’s sole provider of representation in parole revocation hearings, this is a profound, positive change for our clients. While the crisis in City jails is ongoing, Less Is More will ensure fewer New Yorkers are sent there going forward.
New York City’s jails are in a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The Department of Correction has repeatedly demonstrated it cannot keep people safe, and decarceration is the only viable option.
Housing remains a pillar of The Legal Aid Society’s work as the pandemic wreaks havoc on our communities and economy. Our focus is always on keeping people housed safely.
Housing remains a pillar of The Legal Aid Society’s work as the pandemic wreaks havoc on our communities and economy. Our focus is always on keeping people housed safely. In addition to individual representation, this year, we secured federal rent relief funding for New Yorkers on the brink of homelessness. At the state level, we worked to achieve a critically important eviction moratorium along with a New York-specific rent relief program that included some of the strongest tenant protections in the country.
Securing these programs and protections is only the first step. We don’t stop until our clients receive the support to which they are entitled. Though there was an infusion of over $2 billion in federal emergency rent relief allocated to New York State, we discovered that the funding was not getting to eligible tenants. With legal challenges to New York’s eviction moratorium and the expiration date of the protections fast approaching in August 2021, we took swift action.
We called upon the New York State legislature to reconvene. As a result of our advocacy, the legislature approved a new eviction moratorium protecting tenants from eviction until January 15, 2022. Importantly, the new moratorium includes a provision protecting it against another legal challenge.
The new bill provides a lifeline to New York’s vulnerable tenants and allows additional time for the state to disburse the money to those who desperately need it. The Legal Aid Society helped families navigate the complex Emergency Rental Assistance Program application, issuing resources that included a focus on undocumented and mixed-status families.
As the pandemic continues, we have redoubled our efforts behind legislation we have long championed—the “Good Cause” eviction bill that is part of our broader effort to protect even more New Yorkers from losing their homes.
No one understands the housing issues faced by the communities most impacted by COVID-19 better than Legal Aid. Their guidance was indispensable as we crafted legislation that allowed New Yorkers to stay in their homes. These protections literally saved lives.
During the COVID-19 crisis, New York City’s children whose families are connected to the foster care or juvenile justice systems have suffered ongoing trauma. Our teams focused on finding solutions in the face of these historically unprecedented challenges.
During the past year of the continuing COVID-19 crisis, New York City’s children whose families are connected to the foster care or juvenile justice systems have suffered ongoing loss and trauma. Our teams focused on finding solutions in the face of these historically unprecedented challenges.
Legal Aid’s lawyers for children successfully advocated for the passage of the Preserving Family Bonds Act, which gives Family Court judges the discretion to order contact between children and their birth families after adoption. We helped pass new legislation to prohibit the inhumane use of mechanical restraints on children appearing in court. In a particularly trying year, these new laws center our clients’ most basic human needs and their families.
The approximately 6,000 city students who spend time in foster care during any given school year—students who are disproportionately Black and come from the city’s poorest communities—face enormous educational challenges. We worked with the NYC Department of Education to prioritize homeless children and children in foster care to receive remote learning devices during the pandemic. We also successfully lobbied them to create a team dedicated to addressing the specific needs of children in foster care, a historic change in the NYC Department of Education.
Over the last year, we saw widespread disruptions to how the City operated. To respond to growing gaps in city systems, we created a rapid response team to identify issues and trends, saving hundreds of children from unnecessary harm. This team acted quickly, moving children from group settings into the care of their relatives and therapeutic foster settings. We also took extraordinary steps to ensure children in care had valued time with family despite the obstacles of the pandemic.
I decided I needed to re-enter foster care. Before I did, I had to make sure that my Legal Aid attorney would continue to represent me if I re-entered. She knows me and my case so well, is compassionate, and never stops fighting for me.
As a result of our litigation, the City was required to install wireless internet in over 240 shelters housing more than 11,000 school-aged children across the five boroughs enabling shelter residents to participate in remote education.
The COVID-19 crisis forced all New Yorkers to rely on technology in unprecedented ways, none more profound than school-aged children. As the City moved overnight to remote learning, it failed to address the learning needs of over 11,000 school-children living in City shelters who did not have reliable internet.
The Legal Aid Society, together with pro bono partner Milbank LLP, brought a class action suit, E.G. v. The City of New York, to challenge the City’s abdication of its mandate to educate all of New York City’s young people. As a result of our litigation, the City was required to install wireless internet in over 240 shelters housing more than 11,000 school-aged children across the five boroughs enabling shelter residents to participate in remote education for the first time. With the installation complete, expanded WiFi capacity in shelters helps bridge the digital divide well beyond the pandemic. Reliable access to the internet grants families residing in shelters access to resources and public benefits and gives them the ability to search for permanent housing and employment well into the future.
The settlement also ensures that the NYC Department of Education responds promptly to technical issues with city-provided WiFi-enabled devices. Shelters are also required to provide clear signage in multiple languages about the availability of dedicated help desks and technical support.
They helped thousands of other students get an education during this pandemic. In December of 2020, my shelter was finally wired for my internet access… my grades skyrocketed from a C average to an A average.
Through immigration policy advocacy and law reform litigation led by The Legal Aid Society, we rolled back some of the most heinous Trump-era immigration policies. Principle on that list was the prior administration’s public charge rules.
Through immigration policy advocacy and law reform litigation led by The Legal Aid Society, we rolled back some of the most heinous Trump-era immigration policies. Principle on that list was the prior administration’s public charge rules, which denied immigration status through a wealth test designed to discriminate against lower-income immigrants. Legal Aid litigation brought against the Trump Administration ultimately helped spur the Biden Administration to enact policy changes that ended these damaging rules.
As intended, the rules had a chilling effect on the use of benefits in immigrant communities, creating fear that applying for public benefits—from food support to rental assistance—would lead to the denial of immigration relief and even deportation. An important component of our work moving forward is educating our clients on benefits to which they are entitled, free from the fear of repercussion.
We also achieved progress at the state level stopping federal immigration enforcement agents from staking out New York courts and arresting undocumented immigrants. Every person has the right to appear in court without fear of immigration enforcement action. Our successful advocacy for the Protect Our Courts Act makes this fundamental proposition a reality. Now, immigrant clients in New York State can appear in court free from the threat of arrest by ICE agents.
When the United States withdrew armed forces from Afghanistan, we rose to the occasion by filing over 40 emergency humanitarian parole requests for Afghan nationals who were at risk of retaliation or persecution by the Taliban. And as the global pandemic continued to create extraordinarily dangerous carceral settings, we fought for our clients detained by ICE, securing the release of 120 individuals.
We fought for immigrant communities through impact litigation and in the trenches on a range of matters. COVID-19 made our work more difficult than ever, but our dynamic team met the challenge.
New York’s groundbreaking Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a law The Legal Aid Society helped draft, provides a national model on how to shift from excessively punitive approaches to restorative social justice.
New York’s groundbreaking Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a law The Legal Aid Society helped draft, was signed into law in March 2021. The bill provides a national model on how to shift from excessively punitive approaches to restorative social justice.
The legislation legalizes adult personal use of cannabis and drastically downgrades penalties for illegal use, eliminating many of the most harmful and destructive effects that had characterized marijuana prosecutions of otherwise law-abiding New Yorkers. It creates and regulates a legal marketplace for cannabis sales that ensures that revenue from the legal sale of marijuana is reinvested into communities targeted by prohibition.
The law also provides for the automatic expungement of hundreds of thousands of cannabis-related convictions, the vast majority of which involve Black and Latinx individuals, allowing them to move forward with their lives unencumbered by the legacy of the disastrous War on Drugs.
This legislation automatically expunges conviction records that have stigmatized countless young Black and Latinx New Yorkers and have impeded their access to opportunities. It delivers economic justice by ensuring that communities who have suffered the brunt of marijuana prohibition will be at the vanguard of the new industry and have the chance to reap economic gains.
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