Making a Difference through Pro Bono Work
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,” says McDonough.
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.
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.”