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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.

Want justice? Don’t be shy—grab the spotlight

By Lonnie Powers

Civil legal aid organizations are in the business of advancing one of the biggest, boldest ideas ever conceived in our nation: justice for all. It’s an idea with roots in our country’s founding principle that we are all equal participants in our society and thus deserving of equal rights, opportunities, and the protections of the law.

Of course, implementing big, bold ideas requires persistence, imagination, and money. The problem with civil legal aid, which provides legal advice or representation to people struggling to make ends meet, is that it has been severely underfunded since its inception in the late 1800s. Consequently, poor people facing non-criminal legal matters such as eviction, foreclosure, access to educational accommodations, or assistance to escape domestic abuse are left without help. Sadly, this exclusion of millions of Americans from justice remains unseen.

In a history compiled by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), authors Alan Houseman and Linda Perle note that in the early 1900s “no legal aid program had adequate resources,” and that “legal aid reached less than 1 percent of those in need.” Civil legal aid programs began receiving federal funding in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty and now also receive funding from IOLTA programs in every state, along with state and local support. (IOLTA stands for Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts and is the money earned from interest-bearing accounts with funds pooled from lawyers handling nominal or short-term client funds.) Unfortunately, demand for services continues to outstrip supply by an alarming margin; nationally, more than 50 percent of those who seek civil legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources. Here in Massachusetts, the number is even higher, with nearly two-thirds of eligible people seeking legal assistance being turned away.

Funding woes stem in large part from a lack of public knowledge about civil legal aid, despite broad support for the ideals of fairness and justice. The average person simply does not know what civil legal aid is and how its benefits often extend beyond the individuals who receive it to the larger society by bringing about systemic reform, assisting people in remaining independent rather than reliant on government services, and helping our judicial system to run more efficiently. Civil legal aid is not a cause that lends itself easily to catchy slogans, buzz-worthy viral marketing campaigns, or celebrity endorsements.

So what should we do? Sean Gibbons, executive director of The Communications Network, offered some advice in the Stanford Social Innovation Review last February: “At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore—it’s a necessity.”

Recognizing this new reality, in 2013, national civil legal aid advocates and leaders formed Voices for Civil Justice, an organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of civil legal aid in the national media, increasing the capacity for media advocacy in civil legal aid organizations, and strengthening the notion of civil legal aid as an indispensable societal resource. Taking a strategic approach to educating the public about civil legal aid, the organization has funded messaging research and developed tools and other resources to help civil legal aid advocates speak more effectively about their work and do a better job of engaging the media in covering that work. This strategy is paying dividends, judging by Voices for Civil Justice’s press clips page, which is packed with stories that bring much-needed attention to the various barriers to justice  and the organizations and individuals that are working to overcome them.

For civil legal aid to fulfill its mission of ensuring access to justice for all, we must become better known and appreciated by the public. Accomplishing that requires broadcasting the stories of the people we serve―and the life-changing, live-saving work we do on their behalf and for the good of society. To do that, organizations must invest in strategic communications.

As Voices’ executive director Martha Bergmark told me, “At Voices for Civil Justice, we provide opinion research, messages, training and other resources to help the people who do know about the vital role of civil legal aid to be more effective and more frequent messengers―whether they’re communicating with a policy maker, a reporter, a donor, or their in-laws.”

There is a strong body of research and case studies that offer successful models for effectively sharing our stories of impact. In fact, the piece by Sean Gibbons quoted above was penned as part of a collaboration between The Communications Network and the Stanford Social Innovation Review on series of articles by nonprofit and foundation leaders showcasing successful social change communications campaigns. The Communications Network has created the portal com-matters.org to disseminate its model for effective social change communications based on a large research project it completed in 2014.

These are just a few of the resources available to us as we look to create platforms from which to spread the word about the critical but overlooked role that civil legal aid plays in our society. If you work in the field and aren’t yet a member of the JusticeVoices Network, consider signing up! While those of us doing this work are surely not in it for the glory, the time for toiling in obscurity is over.

Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

 

Celebrating Pro Bono Month

By Lonnie Powers

Voluntary service to people in need is a deep tradition of the legal profession. Here in Massachusetts, it is clear that equal access to justice has come to depend on the pro bono services of attorneys.

Last week, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, formed in April 2013 to assess civil legal needs in the state, released Investing in Justice: A Roadmap to Cost-Effective Funding of Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts. The Task Force’s report found that attorneys in Massachusetts donated 82,000 pro bono hours to four civil legal aid service providers in 2013. Worth $17.6 million, the contribution is greater even than the $13 million provided by the state to civil legal aid organizations that year. (State funding for civil legal aid was increased to $15 million for the current fiscal year.)

Pro bono services are a crucial contribution to the workings of our civil justice system, and are just one example of the generosity of members of the bar to our most vulnerable residents. Even so, it’s not enough to meet rising need for civil legal aid. Throughout October, the American Bar Association is celebrating Pro Bono Month to inspire attorneys to volunteer their services to those who need it most.

Indeed, the BBA’s Task Force report also documents that 30,000 low-income clients — or two-thirds of those who qualify for civil legal assistance — were denied services in 2013 simply because organizations did not have the resources to take their cases. The lack of services meant that many of those turned away were left to represent themselves — often losing their cases — or forced to drop their claims.

One of the recommendations of the Task Force is to encourage law firms to consider providing senior attorneys with space, overhead and support for pro bono activities. It also recommended the expansion of programs such as “Lawyer for the Day” at Boston Housing Court — since its inception 14 years ago, 12,000 attorneys have voluntarily assisted 15,000 people with issues related to eviction and code enforcement — to other areas of the state.

Though vital to our court system, pro bono services from attorneys cannot fill the gaps in justice that leave many poor people without legal representation. Such representation is much-needed when resolving conflicts related to the basic necessities of life such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce and domestic violence. Pro bono service makes a difference, but we need more resources from the state if we are to achieve equal justice for all.

As we mark Pro Bono Month, we hope you’ll take the time to contact your state senator and representative and urge them to support increased funding for civil legal aid. Meanwhile, if you are an attorney, please consider pro bono service under the auspices of a legal aid organization. Every person deserves equal access to justice, regardless of income.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

As 50th Anniversary Approaches, Public Funding of Civil Legal Aid Remains Vital to Justice

By Lonnie Powers

Last year, Massachusetts resident and single mother of two Daniele Bien-Aime was fired from her job as a medical interpreter after requesting time off for treatment for breast cancer. With no income, Bien-Aime soon defaulted on her rent. So her landlord filed an eviction notice. Staff at the community health center where she was receiving medical care referred her to a local legal aid nonprofit. An attorney there helped Bien-Aime assert her right to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Bien-Aime got her job back. Her legal aid attorney subsequently worked out an arrangement with Bien-Aime’s landlord, who dropped the eviction proceedings.

You can find tens of thousands of stories like this around the country. Civil legal aid services are life-saving for people like Bien-Aime who have nowhere else to turn when faced with critical civil legal matters, including eviction, illegal dismissal from employment, domestic violence, and child custody issues. And yet public awareness of civil legal aid is low. Surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. But the landmark 1963 US Supreme Court ruling in Gideon, which found that everyone has a right to legal representation in certain matters, limits that right to criminal cases.

Unfortunately, with lack of public awareness comes lack of support for civil legal aid. And it’s a burgeoning crisis. A well-functioning judiciary and a strong civil legal aid system are vital for ensuring that the most vulnerable Americans have access to justice.

Here in Massachusetts, state funding for civil legal aid, when adjusted for inflation, currently sits around the level it was a decade ago. The story is even worse for non-state funding of civil legal aid. In Massachusetts and most other states, that primarily comes from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA); since 2008 those funds have declined precipitously as banks have lowered their IOLTA interest rates. In fiscal year 2014 IOLTA funds are expected to be 85 percent less than what they were a little more than five years ago.

These declines in funding have significantly reduced the capacity to provide civil legal aid in Massachusetts. Agencies that receive funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the organization through which the Commonwealth funds civil legal aid, have 38 percent fewer attorneys now than they did in 2008, a decrease of 63 full time attorneys. Existing programs are simply overwhelmed by the need for civil legal assistance. And yet the ratio of civil legal aid attorneys to eligible residents continues to worsen: according to the Census Bureau, the number of residents of the Commonwealth eligible for civil legal aid has increased by 13 percent or 112,000 people over the last two years.

The irony is that civil legal aid substantially boosts the Commonwealth’s economy each year, bringing in tens of millions of federal dollars, improving the economic condition of low-income clients and other residents and saving the state millions in avoided benefits and social services costs. MLAC estimates that its grantees’ individual casework and leadership in systemic advocacy in FY12 resulted in at least $26,959,218 in new federal revenue coming into the Commonwealth over the course of just one year, with many of the benefits lasting several years. MLAC grantees won an additional $20,584,531 in first-year income and savings for clients and the Commonwealth, for a total of $47,543,749.

This story of shrinking civil legal aid resources despite the economic activity generated holds true in most other states.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of federal funding of civil legal aid with the passage, in 1964, of the Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the War on Poverty. Fifty years later, the need remains great.

Civil legal aid can assure fairness in our justice system for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. But the simple truth is that access to justice more often than not requires access to counsel. It’s an investment we must make if the four words that end the Pledge of Allegiance — “and justice for all” — are to have any real meaning.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.