Legal Aid Society

Advancing Rights Through Policy Advocacy

New York State Enacts Comprehensive Criminal Reform

One of the criminal legal reforms passed in April is an overhaul to New York’s bail statute marking a new era in our pretrial system where release is the norm, not the exception. The new law eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies at first appearance, mandates the use of appearance tickets instead of arrests, and removes the for-profit interests from the pretrial services. The law also mandates judges to consider the accused’s ability to pay bail without posing an undue hardship. The law is projected to result in massive reduction in the pretrial detention population statewide. For NYC figures click here.

As part of a transformative criminal justice reform package included in the New York State budget, Governor Cuomo signed into law a complete overhaul of New York’s Discovery law, often referred to as the “Blindfold Law.” This follows nearly half a century of “trial by ambush” where people were forced to accept plea deals or go to trial without ever knowing the evidence in their cases and made New York third in the country in wrongful convictions. Learn more about the overall of the “Blindfold Law”.

Ready Rule
After years of frustration with prosecutors’ abuse of New York’s “ready rule,” which resulted in a dysfunctional system that kept cases — and those accused of crimes — languishing for months and years waiting for trials that never took place, the State Legislature passed a sorely needed reform in 2019. Most significantly, prosecutors will no longer be able to stop progress in a case by denying discovery to the defense while claiming to be “ready for trial,” thereby stopping the speedy-trial “clock” and stalling action on the case.

In an article published in the New York Law Journal in January 2014, “The Undoing of Speedy Trial In New York: the ‘Ready Rule’”, Tom O’Brien of Special Litigation Unit advocated for the major reform that ultimately became law.  It is quoted in the State Senate’s sponsor’s Memorandum in Justification of the new statute.

New York State Enacts Historic Housing Reform

On June 14, Governor Cuomo signed into law the most progressive rent regulation reforms in New York State. The package of bills expands rent regulations statewide, closes loopholes that have allowed landlords to force tenants out of their homes, and strengthens protections for renters across our city. Learn more.

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Victory

Since 2016, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has denied the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status petitions of abused, abandoned, and neglected youth in New York who were between the ages of 18-21 years old at the time they applied. The Legal Aid Society, in partnership with Latham & Watkins, LLP, filed a federal class action law suit known as R.F.M. challenging this “Over-18 Denial Policy.”

On March 15, 2019, the Court issued an Opinion & Order in R.F.M. certifying the class and finding the Over-18 Denial Policy unlawful.

“This order is a huge step for our clients and others who were unlawfully and arbitrarily denied vital humanitarian status,” said Beth Krause, supervising attorney of the Immigrant Youth Project at The Legal Aid Society. “Immigrant youth who reside in New York State and who survived abuse, abandonment, or neglect will now be put on a path towards securing a green card.” Learn more.

NYS OCFS Proposes Regulations to Improve Residential Treatment Facilities

Following complaints by the Special Litigation and Law Reform Unit of the Juvenile Rights Practice about the conditions for youth in foster care in residential treatment facilities, as well as the lack of oversight by Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) the department has issued proposed regulations.  These proposed regulations would end the use of involuntary solitary confinement of youth in residential treatment centers, ensure quality assurance efforts, and prescribe minimum standards for therapeutic treatment.  While these proposed regulations constitute a step in the right direction, The Legal Aid Society believes they do not go far enough and has pressed for more sweeping reforms in its extensive comments on the proposed regulations. Learn more.

Protecting Transgender People in Jail and Prison

The Prisoners’ Rights Project works closely with advocates for transgender individuals to fight for protection and humane treatment of transgender people during incarceration. Through extensive engagement in New York City planning processes, PRP was instrumental in helping to establish the first Transgender Housing Unit in the City jails; to keep it open when the Department of Correction threatened to shutter it; and to having it moved from a men’s jail to a women’s jail. In the state system, along with other advocates we convinced the New York State prisons to allow transgender people in custody to obtain gender-affirming surgeries, and to begin to house transgender women in women’s rather than men’s facilities. PRP has also been a leading advocate in the creation of national and local standards to prevent prison rape. PRP has twice been recognized by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project as a leading advocate for the transgender community of New York.