Fighting For Clients' Dignity in Proposed City Laws

The Legal Aid Society called on city lawmakers to "preserve the dignity of our clients" by ensuring inmates are produced at all their criminal court appearances and proceedings in civilian clothing, as part of wide-ranging testimony on proposed bills relating to New York City Department of Correction operations and data reporting.

In addition to the civilian clothing legislation, Sarah Kerr, Staff Attorney in The Prisoners' Rights Project, advocated the New York City Council's passage of bills including those that would require the Department of Correction's transportation of inmates to all court appearances.

Kerr testified Monday before the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice on the nine proposed bills.

Discussing the legislation on civilian clothing, Int. No. 1262, Kerr said Legal Aid clients were regularly produced in jail uniforms for grand jury and trial proceedings - "contrary to established law, despite our efforts to protect their dignity and prevent bias." In fact, the failures to produce clients in civilian clothes has gone "unabated despite multiple attempts to resolve the issue" through discussions with the Department of Correction, Kerr added.

She called for expansions in the proposed bill, saying its passage "will help to preserve the dignity of our clients in all criminal court proceedings, which will include release from custody at the courthouse, by making access to personal clothing for all criminal court appearances and proceedings available."

As for a bill mandating correction department transportation of all inmates to court, Kerr said there were "serious consequences" in the failure to produce inmates. This included the "countless stories" of clients losing jail time credit "they would otherwise be entitled to because they were never promptly produced to court to have $1 bail set."

In one recent instance, correction staff failed to produce a 58-year-old man suffering from colon and lung cancer, who stayed in Rikers Island without treatment for more than three months on $250 bail. "Heartbreaking instances of the system's failure such as this are entirely preventable," Kerr said.

In other parts of her testimony, Kerr urged passage of a measure waiving fees in cash bail collection, as well as legislation connected to the Rikers Island nursery program and various data reporting requirements, but recommended how those bills could be improved.