Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

Criminal Defense Law Reform and Special Litigation Unit

The Law Reform and Special Litigation Unit of the Criminal Defense Practice addresses systemic legal issues affecting the rights of Legal Aid’s public defense clients, from police misconduct to the rights of incarcerated people, and from bail reform to parole reform. The knowledgeable and experienced members of the Unit develop ground-breaking impact litigation and innovative policy initiatives; build coalitions with other community organizations and leaders; engage in public education and media advocacy; and collaborate with our colleagues to grapple with novel legal issues arising in their daily practice. The Unit also houses several strategic initiatives designed to address the unmet needs of people whose lives have been affected by the police and prosecutorial systems. In all our work, we leverage Legal Aid’s unique role as New York City’s largest and oldest provider of direct legal services, including our presence in all five boroughs and on-the-ground experience with interconnected legal systems, and work to center the experiences of our clients and empower them to fight back against systemic barriers to justice.

For example, the Special Litigation Unit launched a successful integrated advocacy campaign to end mandatory detention of people accused of parole violations, launching litigation challenging mandatory detention as a violation of due process and successfully campaigning for the passage of the Less is More Act, which ended detention for technical violations of parole rules and established a right to a release hearing for people accused of new crimes.

The Special Litigation Unit also led the Legal Aid Society’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York City, filing dozens of emergency cases seeking the release of medically vulnerable people following the severe, uncontrolled outbreak of the deadly pandemic on Riker’s Island. The Unit succeeded in securing the release of hundreds of people whose disabilities and medical conditions risked transforming pre-trial detention into a death sentence.

Additionally, the Special Litigation Unit led Legal Aid’s response to the brutal crackdown on protests against the NYPD’s long history of police harassment and abuse that erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Our team launched a hotline and clinic to support protesters with legal advice and assistance on criminal charges relating to protest activity and on how to hold police officers accountable for wrongful arrests and excessive force. We also co-counsel, with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a systemic challenge to the NYPD’s response to the protests, seeking accountability for the policies and practices that fostered mass arrests and widespread violence.

Strategic Litigation

The Unit’s practice includes both individual and class action litigation designed to remedy systemic problems in the criminal legal system. In the 1990s, the Unit litigated In re Rountree, the case that established the right to have a judge review a criminal charge within twenty-four hours of an arrest. Our team also litigated Davis v. The City of New York and New York City Housing Authority, a groundbreaking class action regarding unconstitutional and racially discriminating stops, searches and arrests in public housing, that substantially altered the way public housing was policed and continues to subject the NYPD to monitoring of its practices to this day.

Our team also litigated Jane Doe v. The City of New York, the first case to expose rape and sexual abuse by correctional staff at Riker’s Island; Krimstock v. Kelly, which established the due process rights of people who have their automobiles impounded by the City of New York; and Doe v. Pataki, which established the right of people convicted of sex offenses to have a fair hearing to accurately determine the “risk level” that sets obligations for ongoing registration and public notification of their status.

Learn more about our current casework on The Legal Aid Society litigation docket.

Policy Advocacy

The Unit leads the Legal Aid Society’s policy and legislative work on issues relating to criminal justice in both the New York State legislature and the New York City Council. Our team regularly comments on policy proposals, provides testimony to the state and city legislatures, and engages in coalition-building with civil society groups, fellow defender organizations, community groups and other stakeholders to ensure that the rights of our clients are respected and their needs are met.

Strategic Legal Initiatives

In addition, to engaging in strategic litigation and policy advocacy, the Law Reform and Strategic Litigation Unit houses several initiatives designed to address unmet needs of Legal Aid’s criminal defense clients. Those initiatives include:

The Decarceration Project fights to make pre-trial detention, commonly referred to as bail, the exception, not the rule, by working alongside public defenders in all five boroughs to ensure as many of our clients return to their communities after arrest as possible and fighting for systemic policy changes that reduce the City’s over-reliance on pre-trial incarceration. More information about the Decarceration Project can be found here.

The Cop Accountability Project empowers organizations and communities across New York City to hold police officers accountable for human rights violations by maintaining a database of police misconduct that supports defenders and civil rights lawyers in efforts to combat misconduct and advocating for greater transparency and accountability for police harassment and abuse. More information about the Cop Accountability Project can be found here.

The Case Closed Project assists people in obtaining orders sealing and expunging their historic criminal records so they are no longer barred from job opportunities, denied basic government benefits, prevented from securing affordable housing, or live under the weight of institutional and personal discrimination. More information about the Case Closed Initiative can be found here.

The Rikers Writ Court Initiative provides legal representation to almost all people held in City custody who seek to appeal disciplinary infractions resulting in sentences to punitive segregation or loss of good time credit. In addition, the initiative often challenges classification decisions that result in people being placed in restraints, losing contact visits, or being labeled as a gang member or contraband recipient while they are incarcerated.