Projects, Units & Initiatives
The Decarceration Project fights to make pre-trial detention, commonly referred to as bail, the exception, not the rule. 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 and even children. But most importantly, people lose time with, and connection to, their families, communities and even their lawyer. As a result, these New Yorkers are more likely to take a plea deal, admitting to a crime they did not commit just to get themselves out of jail. The trauma that results from pre-trial incarceration affects thousands of New Yorkers every single day. To combat this issue, Decarceration Project attorneys work alongside Criminal Defense Practice attorneys in all five boroughs to ensure as many of our clients return to their communities after arrest as possible.
In addition to providing litigation support to trial staff, the Decarceration Project also runs several separate initiatives aimed at reducing the Rikers population. Housed in the Project is the Time Saved Campaign, which provides assistance to sentenced people who have had their sentences calculated incorrectly, and 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.
The Project is a partner in the #CLOSErikers and #FREEnewyork campaigns and is a leading voice in several local and statewide bail reform coalitions, including the Bail Bond Accountability Coalition. As a part of our legislative advocacy we lobby Albany and New York City Council for a fairer pretrial justice system, and engage in efforts to educate the public about pre-trial detention. The unit regularly testifies in front of the City Council on issues regarding bail reform, algorithmic fairness, and progress towards closing Rikers Island. The unit has trained Legal Aid attorneys in all five boroughs including the new classes, criminal defense attorneys in Westchester County, and lawyers in Albany at NYSDA’s annual training program. Attorneys in the unit also regularly appear on panels and CLE trainings on bail reform.
The unit has partnered with two firms to further develop impact litigation strategies: Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.
In April 2019, legislators passed, and Governor Cuomo signed a criminal justice reform package that amended New York’s bail, discovery, and speedy trial laws! Key changes to the bail system include mandating summonses (tickets) instead of arrests for many low-level crimes, eliminating cash bail and detention at first appearance on most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, and forcing judges who do set bail to consider the accused’s ability to pay and to use less expensive forms of bail rather than just cash and insurance company bail bonds.
Attorneys from the Decarceration Project worked tirelessly with other advocates, organizers and defenders in the #FREEnewyork coalition to demand reforms to New York’s bail laws. With a new Democratic majority in the state Senate and public commitments to reforming bail from Governor Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the coalition was determined to ensure that Albany did not wait another year to fix New York’s discriminatory and harmful bail system. We spent the first months of 2019 educating lawmakers on the need for reform, and the dangers of passing laws that would merely replace one flawed system with another. Ultimately, bail reform was included as part of the budget package that is due on April 1 every year, and Decarceration Project attorneys were in Albany pushing lawmakers to enact meaningful reform throughout the budget process. Notably, however, the reforms did not eliminate cash bail, and the new law still allows people accused of most violent felonies to be detained on bail they cannot afford. Governor Cuomo and Democratic legislators have promised to resume the effort to end wealth-based detention for all, and the fight for liberty and the presumption of innocence—for everyone, regardless of charge—is not over.
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Last Updated: 9 July 2021
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