Joint Statement from The Legal Aid Society and The Attorneys of Color Caucus of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (UAW 2325) on National Public Defense Week

On this annual commemoration of National Public Defense week, The Legal Aid Society and The Attorneys of Color Caucus of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (UAW Local 2325) stand in solidarity with people of color, the LGBTNGCQ+ community, poor communities, immigrants, indigenous people, and Muslim communities. These communities usually all intersect where race is at issue and they historically have been fighting against race-based oppression in this country. Racial injustice formed the bedrock of this country beginning with slavery; it continued throughout the Jim Crow era, which began with "separate but equal" laws codifying racial segregation; it followed with America’s brutal resistance to the civil rights movement; and now has culminated in the current era of mass incarceration. Racial disparities are enshrined in our country’s laws, laying the groundwork for mass incarceration and the marginalization of communities of color across this county. Disproportionate enforcement of these laws means far harsher consequences for poor, Black and Brown people compared to that of their white counterparts.

In recognizing this history, we stand with the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Ashton Sterling, Ramarley Graham and so many more. America must first recognize that black lives matter before it can profess that all lives matter. We solemnly and proudly remember the trans women of color who have been murdered over the years—SEVEN of whom were murdered this calendar year alone. We pledge to continue to fight for LGBTNGCQ+ people of color and the struggle for equal treatment and justice. We stand with black trans women, poor single mothers, and people of color who are targets of racial profiling. We recognize the marginalization of LGBTNGCQ+ people of color where the intersection of race and gender identity has led to disparate treatment both within the criminal justice and civil and juvenile court systems, and in the community at large.

As the recent immigration policies continue to take shape, we will continue to fight for immigrant and Muslim communities; and fight against Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Blackness, transphobia and homophobia.

We stand with and alongside all oppressed and marginalized communities. As an affirmative showing of this solidarity, The Legal Aid Society introduces, as well as endorses, programs and initiatives that help address the racial injustices our clients from these marginalized communities face.

The Legal Aid Society is the nation’s oldest and largest legal services and public defense organization in this nation. Through the dedicated work of close to 2000 staff members in our Criminal, Civil and Juvenile Rights Practices we fight against racial injustices in every form- every day and in every way. As we do this work on behalf of our clients, we must insure that we ourselves are not making decisions or advising clients without acknowledging the implicit and explicit biases present within the Society. That is why as an organization, in partnership with our two unions, implemented anti-bias, anti-oppression mandatory training for all staff members and recently announced the formation of a Racial Justice Initiative to partner with the existing LBGT Law and Policy Initiative in an effort to comprehensively and aggressively address racial bias both internally and externally. It is simply not enough to say we believe in tolerance and affirmation- we must put talk into action.

The Community Justice Unit provides 24/7 legal support for 18 community organizations across New York City that operate a Cure Violence program. In addition to a 24/7 emergency hotline for the organizations and their participants, the Community Justice Unit facilitates “Know Your Rights” workshops as well as legal trainings and law days for the community and schools. In conjunction with our Special Litigation Unit, we are also working on impact litigation to end shackling of patients who have been arrested. Our attorneys create and facilitate art and social justice programs for community youth. These attorneys work on Project Reset, which offers diversion opportunities to young adult criminal defendants ages 16 and 17 at the point of arrest in New York City. The Community Justice Unit and the Special Litigation Unit also partner with a coalition fighting for the Right To Know Act to become law, which strives to end police abuses of power in New York City.

The Juvenile Rights Practice represents youth adjudicated in delinquency proceedings and youth named as subject children in child welfare cases. JRP is involved in many initiatives that help to address the racial injustices JRP clients face. For instance, JRP was one of the primary architects of “Close to Home,” a juvenile justice reform initiative designed to increase community programming for youth who are charged with delinquency and to ensure any detention is within New York City, close to their families and communities for much shorter periods of time. JRP has been and continues to be a member of a both borough and city-wide Racial Justice initiatives in both juvenile justice and child welfare. JRP has been at the forefront of every successful city effort to lessen the number of incarcerated children in the city. JRP also co-chairs the ACS/Advocates Reform Committee, the goal of which is to decrease the removal of children from their homes of origin where those children removed are disproportionately black and brown. Lastly, JRP has authored academic works addressing racial injustice in the juvenile rights system; for example, “Litigating Racism: Exposing Injustice in Juvenile Prosecutions” published in the Rutger’s Law Review, and has spoken a numerous public events, including national conferences, on the issue of racial disparity in juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

The Society’s Immigration Law Unit operates an immigration hotline to assist families navigating immigration detention and anyone who needs legal assistance. The Immigration Law Unit takes individual cases to help keep families together. This Unit also partners with a host of community entities to provide “Know Your Rights” events throughout New York City. These events serve to inform and educate community members affected by, for example, this presidential administration’s most recent immigration policies, and address the rising fear of increased xenophobia.

The Society further demonstrates its commitment to racial justice through its work with the Society’s internal affinity groups. The Legal Aid Society works jointly with the Attorneys of Color caucus and the LGBTQ caucus to educate, defend, and support marginalized communities. For instance, the Attorneys of Color caucus operates a mentoring program for summer interns of color - a program that the Society supports consistently.

Addressing and correcting racial injustice in communities of color through the practice of law is an enormous undertaking, the likes of which entails months and years of outward dedication and constant introspection, among many other things. Despite the magnitude of this task, The Legal Aid Society is committed to continuing and enhancing efforts to break the cycle of racial injustice in all communities of color through its practices and initiatives. Thus, for as long as The Legal Aid Society exists, we will stand in solidarity with marginalized communities in their fight for equal justice and racial equity.