Ongoing Justice Reform: The Case for “Decarceration”

In 2012, Fedcap combined with Wildcat Service Corp., renowned for pioneering work with New York City’s justice involved.

Wildcat is, in many ways, the embodiment of the spirit of Fedcap: The Power of Possible. As a driving force for New York’s services to those who face disenfranchisement and stigma, Wildcat has touched and improved the lives of thousands who would have become statistics without its quality, innovative programming.

Wildcat was led by Amalia Betzanos, a true pioneer in justice reform and a legendary public servant. We pause each May to celebrate the legacy of its founder and the ongoing work of the organization. And each year, we honor the work of other pioneers in the expanding field of justice reform.

This May, I am pleased to report, we will be honoring Justine (Tina) Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice of the Legal Aid Society.

Ms. Luongo has more than made her mark in the area of justice reform. Under her leadership, the Legal Aid Society opened a first-ever Digital Forensic Unit focused on criminal defense, launched the Cop Accountability Project, and increased the capacity of every trial office to represent clients. No small accomplishments.

One of Ms. Luongo’s most innovative projects is the Decarceration Project, a city-wide campaign to reduce—and eventually eliminate—the pre-trial incarceration of poor people in NYC. This year alone, close to 47,000 people will be incarcerated before their cases are heard, simply because they cannot afford bail. Fifty percent of people with bail set cannot afford it. For those who can afford it, just 11% can post bail at $1000, and 17% can post bail at $500.

And yet, 84% return voluntarily in time for their court dates, and 94% return voluntarily within 30 days of their court date.

The cost to the system and to human life is enormous.

Ms. Luongo offers a great example of what it takes to find a precise intervention that can alter—for the good—a sea change in reform. For example, judges can institute a “promise-to-pay” alternative, which releases a defendant to his or her family with a promise to pay if they do not appear for their court date. The statistics bear out that most will return for their dates. The risk of loss is minimal, especially compared with the cost of incarceration for often months at a time.

Decarceration is a significant and important effort in the fight against injustice. Thanks to Tina, the legacy of justice reform has jumped ahead.

We welcome your attendance to our Spring Cocktail Party on May 16th where you can learn more about Ms. Luongo’s ground breaking work, the history and ongoing work of Wildcat, and the legacy of the remarkable Amalia Betanzos.

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