Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

Decarceration Project

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.

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.

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 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 litigation and early intervention. Our strategy integrates legal and social work to fight excessive money bail and illegal detention orders through a dynamic approach:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. We litigate at the trial level, including the filing of writs of habeas corpus to challenge illegal detention orders.
  4. We litigate in the appellate courts when our clients remain incarcerated.

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

Contact

To reach the Decarceration Project email decarceratenyc@legal-aid.org.