Philip Desgranges, previously a supervising attorney in the special litigation unit, stepped into his new role Wednesday. As the unit's attorney-in-charge, he will oversee a variety of both civil rights litigation and policy work in Albany and City Hall.
Desgranges takes on the role as the unit tackles issues like New York City's law enforcement response to people protesting George Floyd's murder and the city's database of DNA allegedly collected and stored without a warrant in civil lawsuits.
On the policy side, Desgranges said the team is pushing to address topics like mental health care, sentencing reform and, in what has been a bitter yearslong fight, the closing of the city's Rikers Island jail.
"Unfortunately, there's just a sparse amount of programs that are available to folks free of charge that can get them the treatment and the help that they need," Desgranges told Law360. "And from Legal Aid's perspective, this is in service of our clients. But from the community's perspective, this is also helpful for public safety."
Desgranges is a former staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union and a former public defender with The Bronx Defenders. The New York University School of Law graduate also worked as a commercial litigator at Goodwin Procter LLP.
In the special litigation unit, Desgranges teamed up with outgoing attorney-in-charge Corey Stoughton, who will remain with the unit as of counsel, to challenge the detention of all people accused of parole violations pending a hearing to determine their guilt or innocence. That case was made moot when New York enacted the Less is More Act, ending the practices challenged in the lawsuit.
"There is no better steward for the next stage of Legal Aid's law reform mission than Phil Desgranges," Stoughton said in a statement. "Phil has long been a thought leader on issues of New York criminal legal reform and the talent behind some of Legal Aid's most successful strategic initiatives. I could not be more excited to hand over leadership of this incredible team to someone of his caliber."
The unit continues to work on lawsuits confronting the New York State prison system's practice of holding sex offenders beyond the end of their sentences because they can't find anywhere more than 1,000 feet from school grounds to live after their release; police stops of New York City public housing residents and their guests; and the arrests of people in New York City for lower-level offenses that would only get them an appearance ticket under state law.
Promoting judicial diversion is another of Desgranges' goals. A bill pending in Albany named Treatment Not Jails Act would expand treatment courts and people's eligibility for them.
"Obviously, Treatment Not Jails would divert people by getting them in treatment courts," he said. "But before that, there should be much more access to mental health services in the community. "
He added, "We know the governor [Kathy Hochul] has made funding outpatient mental health services a priority, and we want to hold the administration to that promise ... and see that money really expand access to services, not only in the city but statewide."
In addition, Desgranges noted that the proposed Jury of Our Peers Act would restore the right of a person with a felony conviction to serve on a jury in New York state after release from prison.
"Under current law, right now, anyone with a felony conviction is permanently stripped of their civic right to serve on a jury," he said. "And this really has a disproportionate effect on people of color because of our history of discriminatory policing and prosecution, where this felony exclusion rule really reduces the jury diversity."
As the special litigation unit continues its work, Desgranges says its members are learning from New York residents about their struggles through Legal Aid trial attorneys and outreach work, and allowing that to inform their litigation and policy priorities.
"That kind of direct connection to the community really helps uplift and inform our law reform work," he said.
"Phil has years of experience advocating for and securing critical reforms to our criminal legal system, whether in the courtroom, City Hall or in Albany," Tina Luongo, chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense practice, said in a statement. "From ensuring our incarcerated clients' access to medical care to holding the City to account for invasive DNA collection and storage practices, our clients and the communities we serve will continue to benefit with Phil leading the criminal defense practice's law reform efforts in this new role."
--Editing by Jill Coffey and Lakshna Mehta.