As a board member of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a non-profit organization that helps unrepresented litigants in New York City Family Court, I was proud to help organize a recent panel discussion addressing race and poverty in the New York State Family Court. Moderated by LIFT Executive Director Cathy Cramer, the panelists included the Honorable Edwina Mendelson, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge; former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; and Proskauer Pro Bono Partner, Bill Silverman. Secretary Johnson is responsible for a recent report on institutional racism in the New York State Court System, where he characterized certain courts, including the Family Court, as providing a “second class system of justice for people of color in New York State.” Bill Silverman co-authored a recent report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts which addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court and how the crisis laid bare longstanding inequities. Judge Mendelson is responsible for the Court’s justice initiatives.
Public schools across the country too often rely on harsh disciplinary measures. These policies are marked by an in-school police presence, high rates of arrest and suspension, and ineffectiveness. Unduly punitive strategies harm students, exacerbate inequality along the lines of race and disability, and lead to increased dropout rates as well as entanglements with the criminal justice system. Helping to break this pattern, also known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” has become part of our pro bono efforts thanks to Kate Terenzi, who just completed a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Proskauer. According to Kate, a greater emphasis on mental health services and an increase in trained guidance counselors and social workers as well as a new approach to discipline are key to improving our public schools.
Working at The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), Kate has partnered with youth-led organizations on various policy initiatives and community organizing campaigns, and has represented young people facing school suspensions. At Proskauer, she has conducted trainings and served as a mentor and supervisor, enabling our lawyers to make a real difference in school suspension hearings. Even when a suspension cannot be avoided, an attorney may be able to help reduce its duration or secure other benefits, such as help for a learning disability, or a transfer to a school that is better-suited to the student.