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.”


John Carroll is 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.


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.


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.

National Budget Proposals Would Harm the Poor; Pullback in Local Support Will Make Things Worse

This post was first published on Huffington Post.

By Lonnie Powers

Across the country, recent headlines about the impact of the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget cuts to social safety net programs are dire and worrisome. “Analysis: Congregations can’t make up for proposed federal budget cuts,” read the header on a story in the national Catholic magazine Crux. “Mean federal budget proposal hurts children,” the Tennessean declared at the top of a story about how the cuts could set back Tennessee’s steady improvement in child well-being. In the Columbus Dispatch, it was “Federal budget cutters take aim at food stamps” over a story noting that two-thirds of Ohio food stamp recipients are children, elderly or adults with disabilities. And in The Hill, US mayors warned that the proposed $6 billion cut in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development could result in a public health crisis for residents of the country’s public housing.

Naturally, these proposed budget cuts to our most basic social services have people with low incomes and anti-poverty advocates on edge, especially those of us who provide civil legal aid. That’s because civil legal aid—free legal advice or representation for poor people facing non-criminal legal issues—is often the very last line of defense for people who are already struggling to pay rent, put food on the table, and meet other basic needs.

Complicating matters is a squeeze on local funding for civil legal aid. The budget just approved by the Massachusetts legislature’s conference committee would fund civil legal aid at $18 million in fiscal year 2018—the same amount as last fiscal year. This amount falls far short of the increase requested by MLAC and eliminates the $2 million increases approved in the House and Senate Budgets, which both included $20 million in funding for civil legal aid.

When a low-income family faces eviction after an unlawful foreclosure on their home, civil legal aid is often the only service that stands between them and homelessness. The same goes for an elderly woman with a limited income facing a steep rent increasewhose landlord refuses to negotiate a lease extension to give her time to secure affordable housing. Ditto for the family that falls on hard times after a father’s catastrophic illness, becoming homeless and facing harassment from creditors.

So there is no doubt that if Trump’s cuts go through, the demand for civil legal aid will only increase as low-income people are made to get by with fewer resources, which are already quite meager to being with. Unfortunately, our civil legal aid system is already so chronically underfunded that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans over the past year received either inadequate assistance or none at all, according to a new report from the Legal Services Corporation, the quasi-federal agency that administers civil legal aid funding. Here in Massachusetts, more than 60 percent of people who qualify for services are turned away because civil legal aid programs lack the funding to help them.

That’s not the end of the story. The Trump administration has also proposed completely cutting off federal funding for civil legal aid. While that seems unlikely, the U.S. House subcommittee that appropriates money to the Department of Justice just released a budget proposal that proposes cutting civil legal aid funding by 24 percent—still a crippling blow that would result in even more people being denied access to equal justice under the law.

On the bright side, some local governments are taking small, but meaningful, measures to close the justice gap. In February, New York City became the first city in the country to guarantee that low-income people facing eviction or other housing issues will have legal representation in housing court. Philadelphia is moving in the same direction. Here in Massachusetts, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is working with state legislators to pass a billthat would guarantee legal representation for all tenants facing eviction, regardless of their ability to pay

Given the ominous signals from Washington, D.C., we must shore up our defenses at home. The first step in this process is for the final state budget to be approved with level funding for civil legal aid.

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

Community Legal Services and Counseling Center: A Hub for Justice and Healing

By John Carroll

In the words of Executive Director Mojdeh Rohani, the aim of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) is simply “to respect and uphold human dignity.” It does this by providing free civil legal aid and affordable psychological counseling to low-income people so that they may meet their most basic needs for employment, housing, health and safety.

CLSACC’s unique interdisciplinary service model addresses clients’ legal issues and mental health needs because they often go hand in hand. A woman escaping intimate partner violence, for instance, may need legal assistance to obtain a protective order against her abuser. She may also need counseling to help her recover from the trauma she has suffered, so that she can find or maintain employment and a safe place to live, and generally stabilize her life. CLSACC’s legal program staff, when needed, utilize in-house and volunteer mental health professionals for case management, supportive counseling, forensic evaluations, and/or for consultation to work effectively with their clients and to achieve the best legal outcome for them.

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, CLSACC has helped tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families facing non-criminal legal matters. Last year, the organization served 1,500 individuals and families.

CLSACC has grown significantly in recent years, doubling its staff from nine to 21 in 2017. The biggest growth has been to programs assisting refugees and immigrants, which prompted the addition of immigration attorneys and clinicians with expertise in treating clients who have experienced torture and/or trauma.

The Immigration Program, begun in 1985, was expanded in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2015 CLSACC established the Center for Global Human Rights and Resilience to more accurately reflect the nature of the agency’s work with refugees and immigrants. In addition to helping the hundreds of local residents who walk through the door, CLSACC assists asylum seekers statewide (with most living in greater Boston). Nearly 50 percent of asylum seekers are torture survivors from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, including those escaping Syria’s civil war, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and state-sanctioned extreme homophobia in Uganda.

Recently, one of the Counseling Program’s doctoral students, Twyla Wolfe, established a pilot micro-lending project aimed at helping these newcomers reestablish their lives in the U.S. Now directed by Clinical Volunteer Jordan Shaughnessy, the project provides material financial support and case management services to refugee and immigrant clients for up to 12 months. Clients receive a loan of $50 per month, empowering them to make private and independent purchasing decisions regarding their basic needs and to access community resources. They are expected to repay the loan once they have legal status and can work legally in the U.S. As one client says, “You’re helping me now and I promise to help you and this program one day.”

Who, exactly, does the helping at CLSACC? Aside from paid staff, pro-bono lawyers, counseling professionals and other volunteers (students, paralegals, translators) generously donated more than 14,000 hours of services last year, valued at well over a half-million dollars.

CLSACC’s annual budget includes funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which provides approximately 12 percent ($125,000) of its annual operating expenses, with the remaining 88 percent coming from grants, contracts, foundations and individual donors.

Established in 1968 by Dr. Joseph Brenner, a psychiatrist at M.I.T., to provide free medical care to people unable to access existing medical services, the organization was originally known as Cambridgeport Medical Clinic. In June 1970, recognizing the additional unmet needs of their patients, Dr. Brenner and his colleagues launched the Cambridgeport Problem Center (CPC), which saw teams comprised of volunteer legal and mental health professionals and laypeople assist patients in finding ways to solve problems and make better life choices. Medical services were suspended in 1973 and CPC eventually grew into Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, following the clinic’s model of using volunteer professionals to provide services to the community’s most vulnerable residents.

CLSACC’s leadership reflects the interdisciplinary nature of its work. Rohani earned a master’s in social work from Boston University and has worked with survivors of trauma, torture, gender-based violence and human trafficking for 17 years. Deputy Director John Froio previously worked as CLSACC’s Assistant Legal Director and Housing and Disability Attorney.

CLSACC’s has been headquartered in Central Square since the late 1970s, in tightly packed space donated by the City of Cambridge with additional space rented from the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee. Recently, the Board of Directors approved the lease of a larger professional office space, located within blocks of the Lechmere T stop and the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, beginning July 1. The new location will allow the organization to better accommodate the organization’s expanding staff and volunteer corps. Most importantly, it will provide a more comfortable setting for CLSACC’s clients and their families.


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.


The Law, Lawyers, And The Courts: The First Line Of Defense Against Donald Trump

(This post was first published on WGBH News.)

by Lonnie Powers

There has seldom been a time when the wisdom of John Adams’s separation of powers among the three branches of government has been more obvious. The doctrine was a crucial innovation of the Massachusetts Constitution and was incorporated into the United States Constitution. The first two months of the new presidential administration have demonstrated the necessity of our system of checks and balances on arbitrary power. Thus far, only the judicial branch has acted as an effective deterrent to the administration’s extraordinary, unrestrained style of governance. The courts have courageously insisted on fidelity to the rule of law.

This was illustrated dramatically in January, when President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees, and visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country. No warning or guidance was given ahead of time to federal personnel charged with enforcing the ban, which went into effect immediately after it was signed. As a result, legal residents of the U.S. who had been traveling overseas were detained or turned away at airports across the country.

Attorneys flocked to airports, providing free legal aid to individuals and families swept up in the ban. This legal assistance was, in many cases, the difference between people with visas and green cards being allowed into the country or having their lives and livelihoods cast into limbo.
Within days, the ACLU, state attorneys general and individual attorneys won injunctions against the ban in federal courts in Massachusetts, New York and Washington State.

Even with this important check from the judiciary, we have seen alarming cracks in the system. At some airports, Customs and Border Protection agents refused to obey court orders issuing a stay on the ban. And President Trump used his Twitter account to attack a judge who issued a stay on the ban, referring to him as a “so-called judge” and accusing him of putting the country in “peril” with his order. The tweets resulted in threats being directed toward the judge.

Nevertheless, when the Trump administration sought to implement a more narrow travel ban in March, the judiciary responded yet again. Attorneys General of Hawaii and Maryland won court injunctions to stop it, with judges ruling that the ban continues to impose a religious test on those wishing to enter the U.S. Opposition to the religion-based, unconstitutional travel ban is the starkest example yet of the important role our independent judiciary and strong legal profession are playing in the current political environment. They have been fighting on multiple fronts—and readying themselves for more work to come.

Attorneys general in numerous states have sued to prevent the Trump administration from dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which protects consumers by taking action against companies that engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive business practices. They are also suing to preserve the federal program that reduces harmful emissions from trucks and to prevent the federal government from resurrecting a national accrediting agency that permitted for-profit schools, such as ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, to defraud students.

The Trump administration is also proposing to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the federal agency that makes grants to civil legal aid organizations across the country. Just as attorneys helped cut through the chaos created by the Muslim ban, legal aid lawyers untangle smaller-scale but no less devastating non-criminal legal matters like home foreclosure, the denial of veterans’ benefits, dangerous working conditions, or domestic violence by negotiating on behalf of low-income clients or helping them navigate our complex civil court system.

With Trump’s proposed budget that seeks to drastically cut funding to, or eliminate completely, an array of federal agencies and popular programs that help underserved communities and low-income families and individuals, Americans who are already struggling to make ends meet will be squeezed even further. If a fraction of the proposed cuts are enacted, the need for legal representation within these marginalized groups will increase sharply. For families living one paycheck away from homelessness, or a child on the edge of catastrophic illness, civil legal assistance can have outsized influence on the ability to live independently and with dignity in the face of increased hardship.

Sensing the catastrophic potential of leaving low-income Americans to navigate our complicated legal, government, and regulatory systems on their own, the American Bar Association (ABA) is mobilizing the legal community in a grassroots campaign aimed at encouraging lawmakers to preserve the LSC and with it our country’s commitment to making access to justice available to all in our nation who need it.

As the last two months have taught us, the legal system is critical to our democracy.

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

Prepare To Dig In To Preserve Civil Legal Aid

By Lonnie Powers

We don’t quite know what to expect from the federal government in the weeks and months ahead in terms of support for civil legal aid. For decades, support for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nonprofit that administers federal funding to legal aid programs across the country, has been seen as a smart investment by members of both parties.

In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, a centerpiece of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty agenda. The law aimed to eliminate poverty by giving poor people access to educational and vocational programs, loans, and other services that would help them achieve greater financial security. It quickly became clear that free legal advice or representation in non-criminal legal matters like child support and custody disputes; home foreclosure or eviction; wrongful termination from a job, and accessing veterans’ services provided stability that was just as vital to fighting poverty as educational and financial supports. Civil legal aid became a key part of the effort to fight poverty in America.

Like Johnson before him, President Richard M. Nixon understood the necessity of civil legal aid for people struggling to escape poverty. In his proposal to create the LSC, which was passed by Congress in 1974, Nixon called local civil legal aid offices the places where “the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help.” He added, “Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”

Numerous programs have since demonstrated the wisdom of this approach. Civil legal services can help poor people stay in their homes, prevent sudden evictions by allowing tenants to negotiate exits from housing, and ensure smooth transitions to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed that poor people fighting eviction notices in housing court in Quincy, Massachusetts fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco, and San Mateo County, California.

Legal advocacy in the form of large, class-action lawsuits to change laws and governmental policies that adversely ― and overwhelmingly ― affect poor people, has also been effective in ensuring access to justice regardless of income. In 1970, legal aid attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldberg v. Kelly that state welfare departments cannot terminate benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing. In 1973, California Rural Legal Assistance successfully sued to stop large agricultural operators from requiring migrant farm workers to use short-handled hoes while working in fields. (The short-handled hoes forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time; field managers required their use because if they saw workers standing up, then they knew that they were resting and not working. After these hoes were banned, back injuries among farm workers dropped by more than 30 percent.) More recently, a federal lawsuit by Greater Boston Legal Services resulted in changes in policy by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance which had improperly denied benefits to people living with disabilities.

Despite these clear successes, state and federal funding for civil legal aid is well below what is needed ― studies show that more than 63 million Americans qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance, yet about 80 percent of the serious legal needs of low-income Americans go unmet. Civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly in order to maintain progress. President Obama, a strong supporter of civil legal aid, secured modest funding increases during his tenure (though some were rolled back). He also expanded access to legal aid services through initiatives like the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR). The Roundtable has made available more grant funding for legal aid, conducted new research, and provided education to federal agency staff about how civil legal aid advances federal priorities, among other activities. But much more is needed, in terms of resources and political will, if we are truly serious about helping low-income Americans establish and maintain independent, financially secure lives.

Any attempts to weaken or dismantle federal civil legal aid must be met with principled advocacy and resistance by the legal community, social justice activists, and civil rights organizations. Civil legal aid is a powerful ― and much needed ― tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability so they can create a better future for themselves, their families, and our communities.

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

Civil Legal Aid Can Help Veterans Struggling With Homelessness

By Lonnie Powers

On any given night in the U.S., close to 39,500 military veterans are homeless. Nearly 1,000 of them are in Massachusetts.

These are men and women who have put their lives on the line in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the jungles of Vietnam. They fought in the Korean War, Panama, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf. And yet, after all they endured in service to our country, they are sleeping in shelters, and living on the streets or in homeless encampments.

The reasons for their homelessness are complex. There are the general stressors that contribute to homelessness such as a shortage of affordable housing and limited opportunities to earn a living wage, coupled with the fact that military training and occupations don’t always translate well to the civilian workforce. Those issues are compounded by mental health problems that result from, or were exacerbated by, their service and the absence of social support networks. Child support arrears have also been identified as a leading cause of homelessness among veterans.

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in 2010 President Barack Obama launched an initiative aimed at ending veteran homelessness by 2015. As part of that, cities across the country, including a handful in Massachusetts, joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. And while the initiative’s ultimate goal has yet to be achieved, homelessness among veterans has fallen nationally by 47 percent in the last six years, while unsheltered homelessness has been reduced by 56 percent. Locally, Lynn became the first Massachusetts city to end veterans’ homelessness earlier this year. Boston has succeeded in housing all but just a small number of veterans who are homeless as of the beginning of this year.

Civil legal aid—free legal assistance or representation for low-income individuals facing non-criminal legal issues—has been an integral part of ensuring our veterans have safe, stable housing. The Department of Justice has noted that four of the most pressing unmet needs of homeless veterans involve legal assistance: preventing eviction/foreclosure, child support issues, outstanding warrants/fines, and restoration of a driver’s license. Recognizing the need, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made grant funding available to legal aid organizations to assist veterans as part of President Obama’s initiative.

In addition to working to get veterans into permanent housing, civil legal aid is often an effective intervention for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless—an estimated 1.4 million veterans nationwide. For example, several years ago, Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, now known as Community Legal Aid (CLA) helped Iraq War veteran Michael Damon and his family avoid foreclosure on their Uxbridge home. The family fell into financial hardship when war-related injuries left Damon disabled and he was ineligible to receive workers’ compensation. His injuries made him unable to care for his two children, which prevented his wife Lisa from working full-time. It wasn’t long before they received a foreclosure notice. Damon’s legal aid attorney filed suit on the family’s behalf against Countrywide Home Loans and Deutsche Bank. Their case was ultimately settled after their attorney was able to assist the Damons in repurchasing their home with a more affordable mortgage.

In another instance, MetroWest Legal Services (MWLS) succeeded in helping a 17-year Air Force veteran keep a roof over her head after a layoff and a stretch of unemployment brought her close to financial ruin. An MWLS attorney helped the veteran file for bankruptcy and represented her at the hearing, which resulted in the discharge of a large credit card debt—and a more stable financial future.

The theme of Veterans Day this year is “Courage-Honoring All Who Served.” As we honor and thank those who have served in our military, we must remember that for far too many veterans, the perils of service do not end with discharge from the military. If we truly want to honor all of our military veterans, we must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have the services and support they need and deserve to thrive as civilians.

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

Meeting The Civil Legal Needs Of LGBT People

By Lonnie Powers

In January, Legal Services NYC (LSNY) released the report “Poverty is an LGBT Issue: An Assessment of the Legal Needs of Low-Income LGBT People.” Analyzing survey data from more than 300 low-income LGBT New Yorkers about their experiences with a range of civil legal issues — non-criminal legal matters like access to housing or health care — it is the first report of its kind to be done in this country. The assessment is sobering, especially given the myth of “gay affluence“ that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and right-wing opponents of gay rights — including the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — that gay people are monolithically well-educated, rich, and politically powerful urban dwellers who do not need or deserve the support of our legal system.

Such portrayals could not be further from the truth. As the report’s authors point out, Gallup research from 2012 showed that more than 20 percent of LGBT people living alone had annual incomes below $12,000 — only slightly above the federal poverty line — compared with 17 percent of non-LGBT people living alone. Another study found that transgender Americans are nearly four times more likely than the population as a whole to have an annual household income of less than $10,000. Other research shows that married or partnered LGBT parents raising children are twice as likely to have household incomes near the poverty level compared to married or partnered non-LGBT parents.

As LSNY’s report notes, LGBT people living in poverty often face multiple levels of marginalization. Just like other individuals and families struggling to make ends meet, low-income LGBT people have legal needs related to accessing affordable housing, employment, health care, governmental social safety nets, and legal protections for their families. However, their economic and legal struggles are often compounded by, if not the direct result of, an added layer of anti-LGBT bias.

For example, due to longstanding institutional bias against transgender people, most insurance carriers refuse to cover medical treatment related to gender transition. A recent change to the Affordable Care Act prohibits what had previously been allowed: blanket exclusion of care, including hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, and other treatment that mainstream medical and psychiatric associations agree is medically necessary for the health of transgender people. Under the new rule, any care that is covered for patients who are not transgender (i.e. hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, mastectomies for women at risk of breast cancer, and reconstructive surgeries) must now be covered for transgender patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights began implementing the nondiscrimination provision in July. But if past experience is a guide, civil litigation will likely play a role in ensuring that insurers comply with the new rule.

Civil legal aid organizations, which provide free legal assistance and representation to low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues, have played an important role in helping vulnerable LGBT people achieve health, economic, and social equity. Take, for example, the announcements last November by CareFirst, Maryland’s largest health insurer, and Maryland Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program, that they would cover medical treatment related to gender transition. Both policy changes resulted from the litigation and legal advocacy done by FreeState Legal, a civil legal aid organization that serves LGBT Marylanders. In California, the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center successfully litigated Dragovich v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). This federal class action suit was filed on behalf of state workers whose same-sex spouses or registered domestic partners were excluded from CalPERS-sponsored long-term care insurance coverage, as required by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Dragovich was among the earliest legal challenges to DOMA, which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Here in Massachusetts, in 2008 an attorney from Legal Assistance Corporation of Central Massachusetts (LACCM) (now Community Legal Aid), represented a transgender couple that was passed over for an apartment rental in the town of Oxford in favor of “a straight, single male,” according to the real estate agent who showed them the property. The women, Samantha Cornell and Andrea V. Boisseau, became homeless after being denied the apartment. LACCM found evidence the couple had been discriminated against based on their gender identities, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and disability status. LACCM attorney Jane Edmonstone negotiated a settlement that included damages and attorney’s fees for Cornell and Boisseau and mandated fair housing training for the offending rental agent.

Our country has made tremendous and speedy strides toward full legal equality for LGBT people thanks to the groundbreaking work of LGBT impact litigation and legal advocacy organizations like GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center. As we have seen recently with the spate of state laws aimed at prohibiting equal access to public accommodations for transgender people, much work remains to be done in this area. By ensuring that the most vulnerable members of an already vulnerable community have the legal representation they need and deserve, civil legal aid organizations play a vital role in advancing LGBT rights.

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

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 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.