Seton Hall Law graduate contributes to final report detailing the new role of Rikers
Island in New York City’s complex criminal justice system.
Will New York City close Rikers Island, a jail complex perennially plagued by problems
and scandals? If so, that historic move will be largely due to the work of the Independent
Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, better known
as the Rikers Commission. And much of the credit will go to Seton Hall Law alumnus,
Kevin McDonough ’05, of the Commission’s counsel.
McDonough, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP led a large team (including fellow Seton
Hall Law alumnus, Lemay Diaz ’16), in researching the role of Rikers Island in New
York City’s complex criminal justice system. The Commission focused on pretrial incarceration,
criminal justice reform, and possible future use of the land currently occupied by
the correction facility.
McDonough led a team of Latham lawyers and staff who devoted a total more than 3,000
hours of pro bono consulting as counsel to the Commission. Latham advised the Commission on a vast array of legal
issues and conducted delicate negotiations with City Hall and the Department of Corrections
concerning the release of sensitive data necessary for the Commission to complete
its work. The Commission ultimately issued a 148-page report recommending closing
the Rikers Island facility, among numerous other reforms to New York’s criminal justice
system, and Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly announced his agreement with the recommendation.
McDonough’s public service orientation began at Seton Hall Law. He distinctly remembers
Professors Romberg and McLaughlin urging him to view being an attorney as not just
a job, but as a noble profession. He carried this with him through his work in the
Center for Social Justice and in his subsequent practice. “I realize the impact that we can all make as attorneys,”
"Serving our communities through pro bono work may not seem meaningful in the grand
scheme of things, but it can make all the difference in the world to an individual
with nowhere else to turn for help."
Kevin McDonough ’05
With the Rikers Commission report, that difference may be felt across the lives of
thousands of individuals. “What is most striking, is almost all of those incarcerated
at Rikers have not been convicted of any crime,” explains McDonough. “Almost all are
pretrial who either cannot come up with as little as $500 to make bail or have not
been given the opportunity to post bail.” While many problems with the facility are
long-standing, interest in Rikers peaked recently due to media stories about the violent
environment. Referring to one report that served as a tipping point, McDonough explains,
“A sixteen year-old named Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack in the
Bronx. Because he couldn’t make bail, Kalief was kept on Rikers awaiting trial for
three years, which is most likely more time than what he would have served had he
been convicted. Kalief maintained his innocence, but when the charges were finally
dropped, accumulated psychological problems from his time on Rikers tragically drove
Kalief to suicide.”
Like other members of the team supporting the Rikers Commission, McDonough realized
the immensity of the undertaking before them. But they also recognized its signficance.
For McDonough it was a kind of capstone to the pro bono work he has done since leaving
Seton Hall Law.
"Pro bono work impacts my personal and professional development in a number of positive
ways, and it is incredibly rewarding – and important – to serve those most in need."
Kevin McDonough ’05
He went on: “This project was a great reminder of the values instilled at me at Seton
Hall Law.” That’s because “I view myself as not just a lawyer, but part of the community
with a responsibility to serve. That was common thread throughout my law school studies
and now my career.”