Queens Defenders’ motto is “we never give up.” We fight for justice every day for every client to ensure we achieve the best outcomes.  The COVID-19 crisis has brought a new urgency to our mission. In light of the significant health risks facing inmates who contract COVID-19, we want to get all our incarcerated clients in New York City correctional facilities released.

Thanks to our collaboration with Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and her staff, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Court Administration, the Parole Board, and our colleagues at Legal Aid, we are succeeding. As of the end of the day on April 1, 2020, 47 of our incarcerated clients had been released.

Using a triage approach, Queens Defenders attorneys and legal staff have literally worked around the clock for the past three weeks sorting through more than 30,000 records to identify more than 220 incarcerated clients who fall into one of the at-risk categories. These categories include persons over age 50, persons with chronic health issues, those serving a sentence of a year or less, those who are incarcerated on a parole violation hold for a misdemeanor and bail of $1 or less, and those who are incarcerated because they could not afford to pay bail at arraignment.

Every case requires a tailored strategy because each client’s circumstances are unique. Continuing in the spirit of the new criminal justice reforms, we will collaborate with our partners until all of the clients we’ve identified are released.

We are also providing COVID-19 resource referral services through Queens Defenders Rockaway Justice Center at (718) 261-3047 x 618 and putting together emergency food baskets distributed by the NYPD 101st Precinct.

Our community outreach staff is ensuring that the young people we serve are engaged despite social distancing. Rockaway Justice Center Young Adult Leaders designed their own advocacy campaigns about issues related to the pandemic that are important to them. They created actions plans, identified government officials, organizations, and other influencers to contact, and sent letters. Youth enrolled in our mentoring program are participating in a virtual media literacy program to understand and identify “fake news.”

Our hearts break for the families who have already lost loved ones to the virus and for those people who are struggling with it now. We are concerned for the welfare of healthcare workers, immigrants, those who are homeless or may become homeless, and those who are incarcerated and at high risk should they contract the virus.

We are inspired by the intrepid, devoted staff at medical centers and hospitals, especially those at Elmhurst Hospital, a facility that serves primarily low-income people. Volunteers throughout the borough are making sure that people have food, can pay their rent, get medical treatment if they need it, and have someone to talk to about their anxiety and fears.

In the days and weeks to come, things will likely get worse before they improve. Life may be very different once the pandemic is over, but it will be better thanks to the energy, commitment, compassion, and creative innovation that the borough’s response to the virus has spurred.

Queens never gives up!

By Lori Zeno, the executive director of Queens Defenders