Prisoners’ Legal Services: Working to Depoliticize Incarceration

By John Carroll

On May 16, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, requiring  the state  to assist them in developing release plans that address their disabilities with an eye toward reducing the chances that the paroled individual will re-offend and be returned to prison.

Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff, Richard Crowell, in this landmark case and was very pleased with his victory. Ensuring proper health care—including mental health services—for prisoners with serious medical needs is one of the organization’s four litigation priority areas.

PLS’s other litigation priorities are staff brutality, unfair and discriminatory segregation, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement, all of which—along with the health issue—the organization believes have reached crisis proportions in the state. For example, Massachusetts is one of a small handful of states in the country that allows solitary confinement for up to 10 consecutive years for one disciplinary offense. PLS is currently supporting proposed legislation to reform the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts, and the organization created a powerful seven-minute documentary video about the lasting effects of solitary confinement. The organization is also advocating legislation that would allow for compassionate release, such as was recently granted former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi at the federal level. Massachusetts is one of only three states that does not provide incapacitated or terminally ill prisoners the ability to die in their community.

Founded in 1972, PLS is funded chiefly by the Supreme Judicial Court and augmented by grants from other funders, notably the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation. Led by executive director Leslie Walker, the organization’s small staff of nine lawyers, four paralegals and three support staff serves the entire state and county correctional system. Prisoners and their family members often make contact with PLS through its website or through defense attorneys who alert the organization when they have concerns about how detained or incarcerated clients are being treated within the prison system. Judges occasionally contact them for the same reason. PLS also disseminates a newsletter throughout the correctional system.

Walker’s interest in prisoner’s rights is rooted in her experience representing an inmate on an administrative charge—which she ultimately proved untrue—as a young Northeastern University law student. She recalled how her client once pointed out to her that, among the 45 prisoners in his cell block, many were relatives and friends from the client’s neighborhood. At that point she realized that crime is a byproduct of poverty. The more Walker studied the field, the more she wondered about the purpose of punishment in light of statistics showing that more than 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts will be re-incarcerated within three years.

Prison does not prepare prisoners to re-enter society, Walker concluded. They leave with few marketable skills and because of their criminal record, many are barred from living with their families in public housing, families that could potentially provide material and emotional support, creating a recipe for failure in the free world.

Over time, Walker’s philosophy on incarceration has evolved into three principles: 1) reward good behavior 2) ignore bad behavior if you can, and 3) punish in as limited a manner as possible.

“If we viewed corrections in a less politicized way, with a greater respect for the intrinsic dignity of the of the incarcerated population,” says Walker, “we would see that building more jails reinforces the problem rather than reducing it.”

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts: Securing Equal Justice for Low-Income Children and Youth

By John Carroll

Forty years ago, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM) opened its doors in Lynn with a mission to promote and secure equal justice and maximize opportunity for low-income children and youth throughout the Commonwealth. Since then the organization has had remarkable success in protecting this vulnerable demographic group through local advocacy and by advocating and litigating for systemic change.

For an example of their expert local advocacy, consider the difference the organization made in the lives of 20-year-old “Melissa” (a pseudonym used to protect her privacy), and her two younger siblings. Their father abandoned the family, but they were left without anyone when they lost their mother to cancer. Melissa’s wish was to care for her siblings and keep them all together. Given Melissa’s youth and her school and work commitments, her plans to care of her younger siblings were dubious. The foster care system loomed.

That is, until a CLCM attorney took charge. Against the odds, he helped Melissa get legal custody of her siblings. He then provided assistance so she could secure survivor benefits, health insurance, food stamps, fuel, utilities and housing. He taught her budgeting and financial management. The attorney also provided legal help to Melissa in housing court. Finally, the legal advocate sponsored small fundraising efforts to help Melissa acquire funds to keep the family afloat. Thanks to the commitment of this CLCM counsel, Melissa and her siblings have remained together and have done quite well.

Working more broadly, CLCM was influential in the reform of state and federal laws that mandated life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. In 2007, the organization recruited a Fellow to investigate, research, and publish a definitive study on the sentencing of youth to life imprisonment without parole. At the time, only Massachusetts and Connecticut mandated that juveniles as young as 14 who were charged with first degree murder (even if only an accomplice, under the felony-murder rule) could be tried as an adult. If convicted, Massachusetts law required that such children be sentenced to life without parole. Through a report, “Until They Die a Natural Death,” published in 2009, CLCM began advocating for changes in this legislation, a goal that was ultimately realized at both the federal and state levels.

Aside from its headquarters in Lynn, CLCM has project offices in Boston and Chelsea and will re-open an office in Lawrence office in September 2017. The agency has nine attorneys, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a panel of about 40 volunteer private attorneys. Jay McManus, CLCM’s executive director, is a public-spirited lawyer who, like his peers, is committed to helping vulnerable people.

Aside from working on juvenile justice reform, CLCM engages in an array of educational and systemic change efforts, including research, appellate and legislative advocacy, impact litigation, and committee and task force work. It produces informative, easy-to-read materials, such as “Quick Reference Guides” on Children’s Behavioral Health Initiatives (CBHI)-Mental Health Services, special education, school discipline and Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) matters—all documents regularly used by attorneys and advocates throughout Massachusetts. CLCM also publishes, on an annual basis, community resource manuals that give parents, attorneys and providers for most cities and towns in southern Essex county and Merrimack Valley a compendium of critical social and legal services for low-income children.

CLCM’s local advocacy is focused on individual legal representation of children in a range of substantive areas, including education, immigration, child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice. Its local advocacy service area encompasses Essex County and Greater Boston. CLCM provides legal representation to more than 400 clients per year; an additional 1,500 children receive limited legal assistance.

The agency also does close to 100 trainings per year across the Commonwealth, reaching 2,000 – 3,000 attorneys, providers and parents.

CLCM is funded by Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the Boston Bar Foundation, and the United Way, as well as several private foundations, including Cummings, Clowes, Eastern Bank and HG Shaw, among others, along with individual and corporate donors. The good that this agency does is exponentially greater, many times over, than the resources it has at its disposal. CLCM punches well above its weight.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.

Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.