The Legal Aid Society’s Annual Gala brought more than 800 people to Cipriani’s on 42nd Street in Manhattan on May 10, 2018. At the end of the evening the Legal Aid Society bestowed its Servant of Justice Award on Richard Davis, the chair of the Legal Aid Society and a longtime member of its Board, and on Herb Sturz.
The highlight of the evening was a short acceptance talk by Herb Sturz, the 88-year-old civic leader who for more than 60 years has led the bail and prison reform movement in New York. Sturz was the last to speak at the Gala. All of the speeches had been well received by the Legal Aid supporters seated around white tables on the banking floor of the former Emigrant Savings Bank in the the gorgeous, cavernous, marble and mosaic landmarked hall which has, nonetheless, difficult acoustics for speakers hoping to have their remarks heard. Then Herb Sturz began his acceptance talk.
As Herb Sturz began to speak the crowd suddenly went silent. All movement stopped and the crowd appeared to lean forward to better hear Sturz’s remarks. In 1,000 compelling words Herb Sturz told the story of young, scared arrestees and the Legal Aid lawyers who stand with them. He ended with an urgent and humane demand to remake the City’s jails. When he ended his short talk, the audience stood and applauded.
Herb Sturz agreed to allow CityLaw to publish his remarks. Here are Herb Sturz’s compelling and perfectly expressed words on Legal Aid and Rikers Island addressed to the Legal Aid lawyers in the audience and to the greater legal community.
I’m deeply honored to receive Legal Aid’s Servant of Justice Award. And of course, I’m proud to be joined this evening by my fellow honoree, Richard Davis.
But the real “servants of justice” are the thousands of Legal Aid lawyers, para-legals, social workers, interns, researchers and support staff who day-in-and-day-out fight for the rights of impoverished New Yorkers – indigent men, women and young persons, who have been charged with crimes- some serious, some less so.
Each accused person faces the painful consequences of an arrest and disruption to their lives, as well as to their families, who often themselves face poverty and multiple traumas.
In the critical hours following arrest, a defendant is virtually alone in the massive, impersonal criminal justice machine that grinds along with the accused suddenly trapped in its cogs.
It is too often only the Legal Aid lawyer who offers solace, legal advice and some hope.
In criminal court cases, the Legal Aid lawyer first encounters a client in a crowded detention cell just prior to arraignment. For many defendants, this may be their first arrest. They’re behind bars, scared, uncertain how to reach family or friends, or an employer, if fortunate enough to have a job. Indigent accused are often hungry and disheveled, usually broke, disorientated and disheartened, if not desperate.
A Legal Aid lawyer, standing outside the holding pen, must do that first interview through the cell bars in just a few minutes, as the time before arraignment is usually terribly tight.
Together, they quickly discuss the charge, possible outcomes, and the chances of release on recognizance or low bail.
At this moment of profound loneliness, a defendant is desperate to go home. Often pleading guilty, just to get it over.
The Legal Aid lawyer is well aware of the dire consequences if the accused stays in jail until trial. For experience sadly shows that a defendant is more likely to be convicted and to receive a prison sentence if he or she remains in jail pretrial. It makes sense: if you’re at liberty, and have returned to court when required, you’ve shown the judge and prosecutor a modicum of reliability. And you have the time and freedom to work on your defense.
So it is the Legal Aid lawyer- those of you here- and your colleagues throughout the city- who offers a life-line, consolation, empathy, and much needed support to a defendant suddenly feeling isolated and powerless.
The lawyer provides the essential balance that, hopefully, brings some measure of fairness to our sometimes dense, even oppressive, justice system. And your physical presence ensures that there is a living, breathing, caring person alongside even in those dehumanizing spaces and processes.
All of us need to keep being reminded that, whatever the charge, those accused are presumed innocent but jailed nonetheless because they are poor. Unable to post bail, they can languish at Rikers for days, or months, or, shockingly, even years.
We all recall the appalling recent case of Kalief Browder, the Bronx teenager charged with stealing a backpack, which was so powerfully described in a devastating New Yorker piece by Jen Gonnerman. Kalief couldn’t afford bail and was locked away at Rikers for three years. Let us pause and reflect: a teenager held without trial for not one, or two, but three years at Rikers- preyed upon by fellow inmates and correction officers, condemned time and time again to solitary confinement. And when his case was finally heard, the charges were dismissed and Kalief was released. But the relief was short-lived. Because Rikers and our justice system had destroyed his heart and soul. And soon thereafter, Kalief Browder committed suicide.
That tragic result is what Legal Aid lawyers strive to prevent every day. While you continue to serve as the front line that maintains a sense of decency and justice in this often impenetrable system, we must all seek broader relief together.
Fortunately, we have now been given that opportunity by the independent commission on NYC criminal justice and incarceration reform, created in 2016 by then city council speaker Melissa mark Vivirito, and chaired by Jonathan Lippmann, the extraordinary retired chief judge of the state.
The Commission’s 27 members (I am proud to be among them) include, of course, Seymour James [the retiring CEO and attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society], and has had tough-minded input from Tina Luongo [attorney in charge of the criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society], as well as formerly incarcerated prisoners and their families. After 15 months of intensive analysis, community hearings and public meetings, and visits to jails throughout the U.S. and beyond, we unanimously concluded that the massive jail complex at Rikers Island – our own penal colony in the East River – must be closed and its system of mass incarceration be replaced with more effective and more humane facilities located closer to the courts in each borough. The Commission’s bold decision not to tinker, or attempt incremental reform, but to shut Rikers once and for all has earned widespread support, including from Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, as well as the support of so many here tonight. That has been encouraging and crucial. And we must all continue to advocate that this profound undertaking go forward deliberately, at a steady constant pace.
Let me end with a few words about Legal Aid’s exciting decarceration project. Early indications show success in further reducing the Rikers population. And with a recent grant of $860,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the decarceration project will soon merge with another effort run by Fedcap [Rehabilitation Services, Inc.], focused primarily on female detainees. I salute Legal Aid on this superb initiative and the project’s leaders, attorneys Josh Norkin, Liz Bender and Jane Roberte Sampeur, who are working closely with Fedcap’s Valentina Morales, an experienced former public defender.
Legal Aid came into existence 140 years ago. I doubt that any of us here this evening will be around in 140 years. But I do believe that if the spirit of our constitutional system ensuring justice to all is to survive and we sadly know it is under threat daily- then Legal Aid must continue to play its essential role, sometimes lonely, and sometimes controversial, to ensure that the indigent among us, who are charged with crimes, will have the opportunity to experience decency and justice. You have done that nobly every day for these past 140 years. And we all rely on you to do it at least for the next 140 years as well.