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The Bronx Defenders Are Worth Defending

Ann Schneider Mar 12, 2015

“There are some very bad apples who did something absolutely horrid,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference at the end of January.

Was he referring to rogue members of his own police force such as Officer Daniel Pantaleo who choked Eric Garner to death on video more than seven months ago and still has not been disciplined by the NYPD? Not at all. Instead, the Mayor was chastising the Bronx Defenders, an organization that provides legal help to more than 20,000 poor New Yorkers last year and whose work he has also praised.

Feeling the heat from police union President Patrick Lynch and the New York Post, Mayor Bill de Blasio felt the need to speak out about “Hands Up”, a five-minute music video protesting police violence. During the video, the Rappers Maino and Uncle Murda are shown pointing their guns at the head of an actor playing a police officer. Quickly panning statistics like, “One Black man is killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes,” and “Black teens are 21 more times likely to be killed by police than white teens,” and calling upon viewers to “Put your feet in my shoes,” the rage the music expresses is palpable. Two attorneys from Bronx Defenders, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, who had no control over how the video was edited appear in separate scenes comforting the mothers of the victims of police misconduct.

Rao and Napoli were forced to resign under enormous public pressure and threats from the deBlasio administration to defund the organization.  Founder and Executive Director Robin Steinberg has been put on unpaid leave for 60 days in order to ensure that $20 million per year in City funding would not be cut off.  

“Reasonable people should recognize overreaction when it stares them in the face.  And no responsible party should have sought to score political points or regain political capital by threatening the health of Bronx’s underserved population or the dedicated Bronx Defenders lawyers and staff who serve them,” Cardozo law professor Jonathan Oberman wrote for the New York Law Journal.

Lost in the furor has been an understanding of the important work that Bronx Defenders has done since it was founded in 1997 to provide “holistic defense” to ameliorate the reasons people end up in the criminal justice system. With a staff of 250 lawyers, social workers, advocates and investigators, Bronx Defenders serves clients charged with crimes and assist community members with housing, family, child custody, immigration, school-related and re-entry issues. The Department of Justice has funded them to go around the country to train other public defender offices across the country in this approach.

Their work has been ground-breaking, such as winning from New York’s highest court in March 2012 a ruling that a defendant must be given alternatives to posting cash bail, such as a bail bond or use of a credit card.  Using their staff of investigators, advocates and social workers, they boast an 87 percent acquittal rate in criminal trials. In conjunction with Floyd v. City of New York, they represent the plaintiffs in Ligon v. City of New York, contesting the program where landlords surrender hallways of private apartment buildings to the NYPD.  Through FOIA suits and creative use of the immigration laws, Bronx Defenders has also fought unjust deportation policies such as special registration and the Secure Communities program which was used to net hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who had only minor infractions on their records.

Efforts by Bronx Defenders forced NYC to pay out big monetary awards for a class of 22,000 mostly homeless people who continued to be arrested for loitering, years after the statute the offense was based on was ruled unconstitutional. The city had allowed the arrests to continue because it perceived these people as powerless. 

Bronx Defenders produced texts showing lawyers how to navigate the byzantine interlocking Catch 22 system, so that the collateral consequences of a misdemeanor conviction, including loss of eligibility for student loans, loss of Section 8 apt subsidies, loss of a job or driver’s license or even deportation, can be minimized early on.

No one else has examined the economic costs of marijuana enforcement in the Bronx and New York City as a whole, the title of report released December 2014.  Based on client interviews, Bronx Defenders showed that the true cost of marijuana arrests was in the millions of dollars, totaling up the court fees, “surcharges,” lost wages, and child care complications, school and work absences.  As in Ferguson, Missouri, these collateral costs act as a regressive tax on low-income communities of color.

The Bronx Defenders successfully lobbied to pass legislation allowing for charitable bail funds and reopened the Bronx Freedom Fund to cut out unscrupulous bail bondsmen. The Fund posts bail for 150 clients a year who are able to keep their jobs, go to school, stay in their homes and enroll in needed treatment and services while their cases are pending. More than three out of four Fund clients' cases are dismissed or result in a non-criminal disposition while 98% of clients return for court dates which means that nearly every dollar of bail money is reused more than once to assist clients.

While liberal bar associations wring their hands and ask,  “How do we restore trust in the judicial system?,” people of color answer with videos like the one that sparked this controversy.  It’s simple:  “Stop killing us!”  We should all be grateful for the work of Bronx Defenders.


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