Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

Decarceration Project

The Decarceration Project fights to make pre-trial detention, commonly referred to as bail, obsolete. Our system’s over-reliance on incarceration ruins lives. Pre-trial incarceration of even a few days has disastrous consequences: people can lose their jobs, homes, benefits, children, and even their lives. At a minimum, people lose time with–and connection to–their families and communities, prompting many to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, just to get out of jail.

To combat this issue, the Decarceration Project fights alongside Criminal Defense Practice attorneys in all five boroughs to ensure as many of our clients return to their communities after arrest as possible. The Project also works with community partners and organizing coalitions on broad sweeping policy initiatives, in recognition of the fact that the safest communities are not the ones with the highest jail populations, but the ones with the most resources. For example, the Project played a key role in the historic 2019 reforms to New York’s bail laws and, since then, have led efforts to educate lawyers and the public about the benefits of those reforms.

Housed within the Project is the Women’s Pretrial Release Initiative, a collaboration between The Legal Aid Society and Fedcap focused on getting cis- and trans-women off of Rikers Island.

Our Model

The Decarceration Project works to eradicate pretrial incarceration of New York’s most vulnerable citizens through early intervention, litigation, and policy advocacy. Our strategy integrates legal and social work to challenge the use of money bail through a dynamic approach:

  • We identify clients who remain detained after their arraignment and work with trial attorneys to fight unfair bail conditions and secure release as soon as possible.
  • We link our clients with social workers who assess our clients’ needs and help our clients get back to their community with the support they need.
  • We litigate at the trial level, including the filing of writs of habeas corpus to challenge illegal detention orders.
  • We litigate in the appellate courts when our clients remain incarcerated.
  • We organize alongside other stakeholders to support law reform efforts aimed at decarceration.

Our work positively and directly impacts marginalized people and communities of color by working to ensure that our clients are able to keep housing, employment, and sustenance for their families while they wait for trial. Our work is also practical. It minimizes unnecessary and costly pre-trial incarceration, restores the presumption of innocence, and helps disrupt an unjust criminal justice system, creating the space for systemic change.

Additional Resources


To reach the Decarceration Project email