POLITICO New York Discusses Legal Aid’s Open Dialogue with the City
TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2016

POLITICO New York features The Legal Aid Society and its Attorney-in-Chief Seymour W. James in an article titled “After 20 years, Legal Aid enjoys a détente with City.”

“I think they’re receptive to the thoughts that we have,“ Seymour James, Attorney-in-Chief, told POLITICO. “Whereas the previous administrations pretty much were adversaries all the time. They’ll listen to us. We don’t always agree, but there’s certainly an open dialogue. They’re looking to improve conditions for the population we serve.”

After 20 years, Legal Aid enjoys a detente with City Hall
By Colby Hamilton

The Legal Aid Society of New York City spent 20 years in perpetual opposition, its largely indigent clients bearing the brunt of two Republican mayors’ policies. Now, two years into the mayoralty of a progressive whose signature campaign pledge was dismantling his predecessor’s policing regime, the public defenders organization finds itself on new terrain, navigated by a new leader.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has broken with how previous ones dealt with the defense bar, said Seymour James, who took over as Legal Aid’s attorney-in-charge in 2014.

“I think they’re receptive to the thoughts that we have, whereas the previous administration pretty much were adversaries all the time,” James said. “They’ll listen to us. We don’t always agree, but there’s certainly an open dialogue. They’re looking to improve conditions for the population we serve.”

There was perhaps no greater validation of the shift for Legal Aid and its mission than the move by its former head Steve Banks — who had spent over 30 years at the organization, 10 at its helm — into de Blasio’s administration, heading the Human Resources Administration.

Banks said he’d known de Blasio was “very much focused on the same policies” from working with him when he was a Council member and public advocate and from his positions during his run for mayor. Joining his administration, Banks said, was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make “fundamental change” for the people he’d previously represented at Legal Aid.

By and large, James agreed with Banks: Things have changed, in real and measurable ways.

There are the big-ticket items, as de Blasio has followed through on a campaign promise to end stop-and-frisk as the city had known it under the Bloomberg administration. James said he’s confident that over time, that policy shift will repair “the dynamic between police and communities” to the point that police aren’t seen as “an occupying force.”

And there is the mayor’s substantial work, mainly through the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, on new programs like bail reform, supervised release and case-processing changes. MOCJ general counsel Alex Crohn said Legal Aid, along with other public defenders, has been key to initiating those reforms, because it has “the lived experience of knowing how the system works, on a very molecular level.”

“They have that expertise, but they’re also the people who can move the cases, so it’s absolutely necessary to have their buy-in and have them have a seat at the table, and to have agreement on the reforms we’re trying to do in order to improve the system,” Crohn said.

But beyond the obvious gulf that separates them (“We pay people to represent clients that our government has taken some enforcement action against,” Crohn noted), the city and Legal Aid remain at odds over policies, too — even those of an avowedly progressive administration.

James pointed to the New York Police Department’s “broken windows” policy, which focuses on quality-of-life arrests with the goal of deterring more serious crimes and which both the mayor and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, continue to support.

“We think broken windows break lives,” James said, even while noting that arrests for quality-of-life offenses have dropped under de Blasio.

At the other end of the law-enforcement gauntlet, the city’s Rikers Island jail is also a troubling constant for Legal Aid. Allegations of inmate abuse by guards there have prompted large-scale legal action by the organization for decades, and its lawyers have negotiated with the administration over the latest class-action suit aimed at curbing the alleged systemic violence.

The implementation of the settlement in that suit, which was joined by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, is now in its initial phases. In spite of it, James said the conditions at Rikers, especially the culture among its correction officers and their higher-ups, were still “not good.” That wasn’t, James added, for lack of trying by Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who he said has shown “an interest in making change, which I think is a far cry from what we were hearing previously.”

Other challenges remain for Legal Aid in its dealings with the city. Internecine battles between City Hall and Albany have bred uncertainty over homelessness funding. Negotiations will begin in the not-too-distant future over the organization’s new contracts with the city — which now comprise nearly half, $126 million, of its $254 million budget — that could allow for raises and more support staff. And prisoner abuse at Rikers is still on everyone’s radar.

Still, James isn’t taking Legal Aid’s new position for granted: “We’re cautiously optimistic.”