In South Bronx, Legal Aid and Shoulders to Lean On


Source: The New York Times

A sprawling, sunny room beckons invitingly with black couches and bright accent pillows for relaxing, bookshelves with novels to borrow for an hour or a week, a pair of children’s tables, outlets for recharging cellphones and free coffee.

This is the newest hub for justice in the South Bronx: a public defenders’ office that looks more like a living room than a legal quarter of last resort.

The Bronx Defenders opened its reception center with a ribbon-cutting on Wednesday attended by about 100 people, including the Bronx borough president, judges, and clients on the ground floor of an affordable-housing complex at 360 East 161st Street, near Melrose Avenue, several blocks from the Bronx criminal and civil courthouses.

The center, in the Melrose neighborhood, is part of a $2.6 million expansion by the Bronx Defenders from a single building to what it calls a three-building Justice Campus to accommodate its growing caseload.

“You can get comfortable here and talk about your problems,” said Rahysha Ortega, 20, who settled on a couch with a book to wait to discuss a dispute with her landlord. Her 3-month-old son slept beside her.

Robin G. Steinberg, the executive director, said the new office reflected the growth of the operation as well as its focus on “holistic defense,” which seeks to help people not only with the criminal charges they face but also with other aspects of their lives, like fighting eviction and securing welfare benefits. “It’s really important for advocates in the criminal justice system to understand the context in which our clients survive,” she said.

The Bronx Defenders, which started in 1997 with a staff of eight, has grown to 190 lawyers and advocates in 10 specialties, from immigration law to parent advocacy. It handles 28,000 criminal cases a year — up from 12,500 in 2011 — and an additional 2,000 family and civil court cases. It is one of several nonprofit organizations in the city that provide free legal help for those who cannot afford a lawyer.

With an annual budget of $19 million, the Bronx Defenders is supported by government money, foundation grants and private gifts. Since 2010, it has also received more than $500,000 from the Justice Department to teach its holistic defense model to public defenders in other cities, including Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., and Berkeley, Calif.

Byran Davis, 49, an unemployed baker, said he had passed the center at first because he mistook it for a day care center or a public library. Once there, he sat back on a couch to wait for someone to help him renew his $200 monthly food stamp benefits — renewal is a service offered to people even if they are not being represented in court. “It looks nice,” Mr. Davis said with a smile. “And it’s quiet — there’s no shouting and screaming.”

Down the hall, there was a mock-trial courtroom where two lawyers were preparing a case with a defendant. There were also offices for meetings and one for teleconferencing with clients being held on Rikers Island.

When Ms. Steinberg spied a familiar face coming through the door, she ran over and gave the woman a hug. “What’s going on?” Ms. Steinberg asked, and then corrected herself: “Well, something’s always going on.”

The woman, Diane Nelson, found the Bronx Defenders more than a decade ago after being charged with attempted arson. She said she had tried to set a fire in her apartment because her landlord had refused to make repairs. After serving 3 ½ years in prison in upstate New York, Ms. Nelson returned to the Bronx, and to her defenders. They have been helping her ever since to qualify for benefits, find jobs and housing, and sort out her complicated life.

Ms. Nelson’s social worker acted as a birthing coach for her fourth baby. Her housing advocate tutored her in math when she took community college classes. And when Ms. Nelson tried a culinary class, she baked birthday cakes for the staff.

“I can’t find anyplace better,” said Ms. Nelson, 36, with an approving glance around the new center. “When my kids come here now, they’ll have some place to sit down.”

  • Geographical area: United States
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