Poor New Yorkers of color face unjust policing, heavy ACS surveillance, predatory landlords and failures of policing and due process. Their richer, whiter counterparts do not face anywhere near the same threats.

This week, NDS Managing Director addressed a joint session of the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate about how COVID-19 compounds the injustices our neighbors and clients in upper Manhattan face every single day. 

Watch her testimony here, and read her statement below:

Alice Fontier Oral Testimony 5/18/2020

Background on NDS and who we represent 

I am Alice Fontier, I am the Managing Director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.  NDS is a community-based public defender office that provides high-quality legal services in Northern Manhattan – a diverse area made up of Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood.  We see the disparate impact of economic and racial inequities in our community on a daily basis.  The current public health crisis has heightened those realities and unless the City and State dedicate resources to our community, the negative toll will be devastating and long-lasting. 

Double impact of virus plus bias in legal system 

As the number of those infected and killed by the coronavirus continues to disproportionately impact communities of color, we are also seeing the devastating impact of the legal system on our community. There is no doubt that public health measures implemented by the Governor and Mayor are essential to the health and safety of our entire city. Yet the most vulnerable communities are experiencing a more profound impact: the existing challenges of poverty made worse by this crisis are compounded by systemic injustices within the family, civil, and criminal systems. These issues will be further amplified when the court system begins operating at full capacity again.

Impact of legal systems 

Weaponization – racial bias while enforcing social distancing 

Even worse, we are now seeing the legal system being weaponized against communities of color, in the name of health and safety. Two weeks ago, the NYPD added officers for the purpose of enforcing social distancing rules.  Immediately, images and videos of officers assaulting, pepper spraying, and intimidating people of color emerged. These images stood in sharp contrast to those of park workers and police officers in wealthy white communities politely distributing masks to people gathered together. The enforcement of social distancing rules is not the only example of the racially biased impact of the legal response to COVID-19, it is only the most visible.

  • This is a health crisis – not a law enforcement crisis. There must be a bright line rule that the police play no part in “enforcing” social distancing.  City and State employees such as the Health Department, Parks Department, and community organizations should be given guidance and PPE to inform and assist.
  • Contact tracing cannot become another method of surveillance in communities of color. The State must pass a bright line rule: Contact tracing data and information can never be provided to law enforcement for any purpose.

Family Court – separation of families 

The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has long operated from the presumption that people of color are inherently less capable parents.  ACS and the Family Court continue to separate families, despite family support being even more critical during these times of forced isolation. We have seen newborns separated from their mothers, sometimes without a court order. ACS accuses our clients of being “non-compliant with supervision” when they are enforcing social distancing at home by asking workers to stay at the door. Yet many of our clients with children in foster care have not seen their children for weeks, because agencies are cancelling in-person visitation. 

Civil Court – housing crisis 

Despite the eviction moratorium, our clients are still not guaranteed the safety and stability of their homes. We have seen landlords attempt to circumvent the law and illegally evict tenants. Even for those who remain housed, landlords have refused to provide services like bathrooms, heat, and mold abatement – basic essentials that are ever more vital when there is no choice but to shelter in place. Our clients were living on the edge of extreme poverty prior to the current crisis.  The vast majority do not have savings, and survive paycheck to paycheck.  The economic toll on our community has yet to be fully realized, but almost certainly when the eviction ban is lifted, there will be a substantial housing crisis in need of immediate protective action in the legislature and the courts.

Housing stability is a key component of recovery.  The Legislature must support rent relief.  There are bills pending that should be considered immediately, otherwise there will be a second wave crisis for communities of color as soon as the eviction moratorium is lifted.

Criminal Court 

Danger at Rikers Island not taken seriously 

Finally, although we have seen the overall number of arrests decline, the impact on people facing criminal allegations cannot be overlooked.  As of May, roughly half of incarcerated people at Rikers Island either have coronavirus, are sick, or have been exposed to the disease. Although the population has been reduced, every person still remaining on Rikers Island is at heightened risk.  At the start of this crisis, we sought the release of one of our clients, who had underlying health concerns, but his release was opposed by the District Attorney and a bail modification was denied by the Court. While in custody he contracted COVID-19, and has since passed away.  No New Yorker deserves a death sentence. 

  • Jails and prisons can never be made safe.  81% of deaths from coronavirus in NY prisons and jails have been people of color.  The only solution is for the Governor to grant clemency for people who are at risk.
  • The Legislature must pass the HALT Solitary bill that is currently pending. Solitary confinement increases the risk of infection in two ways: 1. Everyone in solitary confinement is required to be escorted at all times, which means close personal contact with officers; and 2. The stress of solitary confinement negatively impacts the immune system, making otherwise healthy people more susceptible.

No Due Process – Indefinite Detention 

Despite the importance of keeping people out of dangerous city jails at this time, we are still seeing people arrested for very low-level offenses. Once bail is set on these clients, the suspension of normal time limits for the prosecution by the Governor’s Executive Order means that due process has been wholly suspended for our clients –  no grand juries, no speedy trials, and preliminary hearings are not granted in a timely or sufficient manner. Instead, our clients remain imprisoned, facing the imminent risk of Covid-19.


What will the City and State look like for low-income people of color once we are finally released from this pandemic? How will government leadership acknowledge and repair those communities who have been unduly impacted? What work will you do to anticipate the irreversible damage and impacts that will surely continue to resonate in low-income communities of color for decades to come?  The lives of so many depend on how we resolve these questions. 

The Governor’s statements about potential “across the board” budget cuts, will enhance the disparate impact of the coronavirus. We have seen the disproportionate impact on communities of color, if the services on which they rely – Medicaid, non-profit agencies, and legal services – are reduced, the impact will be devastating. We live in an inequitable world, “equal” cuts do not have the same impact on those on the margins.