Over 100,000 Mass. residents could see thousands taken out of their tax refunds (WGBH)

An April 24 WGBH article about unemployment overpayments in Massachusetts quoted Rory MacAneney, Employment Attorney at Community Legal Aid. An excerpt from the article is below.

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For 112,000 residents who were overpaid unemployment benefits in the past few years, the state is coming to collect.

Overpayments are not unusual for unemployment. About 2% of all unemployment payments, or roughly $30 million, were overpayments in Massachusetts in 2019, per the state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance. But chaos in the early days of the pandemic and short-term federal programs — rapidly built, executed and shuttered — made the money owed now at a magnitude that’s anything but normal.

Administrative errors, fraud and confusion about who qualified for new, short-term federal programs led to billions being overpaid. After years of forgiveness efforts slowly whittled down that sum, the department is now trying to get $719 million back from taxpayers on this year’s tax refunds. The 112,000 claimants owe, on average, $6,400 to the federal and state government. Any tax refunds that would be given to a claimant will instead be put toward paying down their debt to the unemployment overpayments.

Read more at WGBH.

As Mass. considers funds for prisoner re-entry, advocates say more is needed (WBUR)

An April 24 WBUR article on the Commonwealth’s re-entry services for people who have been incarcerated quoted Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. An excerpt of the article is below.

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Massachusetts public safety officials recently did something unusual: They invited politicians, social service workers and journalists into a state prison to demonstrate their efforts to help those being released from custody.

The invitation came as the Department of Correction makes its case for an overall budget increase for the next fiscal year. The department is also seeking more money for programs that help people transition to life outside of prison, a process known as “re-entry.”

Last year, more than 2,000 people were released from state prisons, and many face difficulties finding jobs or housing with a criminal record, or adjusting to life after incarceration.

Read more at WBUR.

Legal aid advocates named to Judicial Nominating Commission

On April 12, Governor Maura Healey appointed (among others) Laura Gal, of Greater Boston Legal Services, and Tatum Pritchard, of the Disability Law Center, to the Judicial Nominating Commission. An excerpt of the official press release from the Governor’s office is below.

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Today, Governor Maura T. Healey signed an Executive Order reestablishing the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) and a code of conduct for members and judicial nominees. She also appointed a historically diverse, talented cohort of Commissioners who will be responsible for advising the Governor on nominating and appointing judicial officers in coordination with the Governor’s Council. Representing all regions of the state, the Commissioners bring a wealth of experience in the private and public sectors, in big firms and solo firms.

The Executive Order directs the JNC to perform its due diligence to ensure that judicial candidates hold the qualities necessary to serve on the state’s courts, including integrity, a strong work ethic, clear judgement, and a commitment to equality and impartiality. Commissioners are also instructed to work to ensure that judicial candidates represent the diversity of the communities they serve, including geography, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability and economic status.

Read more at mass.gov.

Advocates seek further eviction protections (The Eagle Tribune)

In a March 21 article, The Eagle Tribune reported on a letter signed by representatives from 100 advocacy groups to extend Massachusetts’s Chapter 257 law, which blocks eviction proceedings for tenants who are seeking public assistance to pay their rent. Among the letter signers were leaders from Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Greater Boston Legal Services. An excerpt from the article is below.

BOSTON — With pandemic-related eviction protections set to expire at the end of the month, advocates are pushing for an extension to give state lawmakers more time to make the rules permanent.

In a letter to legislative leaders and Trial Court officials, a coalition of 100 social welfare, public health and legal aid groups called for a more than year-long extension to the Chapter 257 law, which blocks eviction proceedings for tenants who are seeking public assistance to pay their rent.

The protections, which were approved by the state Legislature in 2020 and extended twice, are set to expire March 31. The coalition wants Beacon Hill leaders to extend the law’s sunset date until July 31, 2024, “to allow more time for a permanent solution to be put into place.”

“Allowing this critical tool to expire now could result in evictions where tenancies could have been resolved with rental assistance, pushing many families and individuals into homelessness,” they wrote. “There is broad agreement among policymakers that residents across Massachusetts are experiencing a housing crisis.”

The coalition, which includes the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, Greater Boston Legal Services and several United Way chapters, said the law “ensures that tenants are not needlessly displaced and maximizes rental assistance payments to landlords.”

The law also requires landlords to upload notice-to-quit letters to a state tracking system, the coalition wrote, “enabling agencies administering rental assistance to conduct outreach to landlords and tenants to prevent evictions.”

“While not perfect, Chapter 257 has been an essential protection for tenants waiting for rental assistance applications to be processed,” they wrote.

Read the full article in The Eagle Tribune. 

This story was also covered in The Salem News on March 27.

Massachusetts Attorney General reaches deal to keep Fenway women’s rooming building affordable (Boston Herald)

A March 22 Boston Herald article about a rooming house in the Fenway neighborhood quoted Margaret Turner, Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. An excerpt from the article is below.

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One of the lowest-cost housing options for women in Boston will remain that way following an agreement secured with the state attorney general’s office.

The Our Lady Guild House, a single-occupancy rooming building on Charlesgate West, lists its smallest room, a 10-by-11 footer, at $810 and its largest, a 12-by-14, at $950 — Boston steals, especially at easy walking distance to several arts and parks, including Fenway.

The property is owned by the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, though state’s filing lists a separate entity named for the building since 1981, and has its building open for residency by about 130 “women of all faiths and national origins” — but the Attorney General’s office said a sale is pending that could could have put the affordability of this housing in jeopardy.

On Wednesday, the AG’s office announced that it had secured a deal with the owners and management of the House that provides “protections against evictions and rent increases while the sale of the building is pending,” settles allegations of age and disability discrimination against long-term tenants and secured a $115,000 penalty payment that will be mainly distributed to seven long-term residents of the House.

Read more in The Boston Herald.

State finds Boston Public Schools transportation issues violated students’ right to special education services

In a March 1 article, The Boston Herald reported on an investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that determined Boston Public Schools had violated students’ rights to special education services. Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children filed a joint complaint about the issue on behalf of several families last year. An excerpt of the article is below.

In a letter sent to Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper on Friday, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said an investigation found the district’s transportation issues violated students’ rights to special education services.

“The findings in the preceding sections of this letter indicate that the District did comply with some of its obligations under federal and state requirements,” DESE officials wrote in the letter.

Several families issued a joint complaint with Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children in October, outlining incidents in which the district failed to provide students with one-on-one and specially trained bus monitors, families notification of transportation issues, or just any transportation at all — in effect denying the students their right to a free appropriate public education.

In many of these incidents, “students’ families are required to (provide transportation), causing financial and other burdens,” the letter states, and systemic failures have “deprived many students of their education due to ongoing absences and late arrivals resulting from lack of or delayed transportation.”

The state reviewed parent reports of bus issues in the last year, finding 3,469 coded “Missed Stop,” 775 “Late Bus,” 736 “Stranded Student,” 721 “Bus Monitor,” 597 “Other,” and 236 “Blown Route” or “Uncovered Route.”

In the fall of the 2022-23 school year, an average of 16.4% of buses were still dropping off students late or not at all, the letter states.

These wide-scale issues had an especial impact on students with disabilities, the investigation found, including the “key deficiency” of bus monitors.

“The District reported that approximately 35–40% of monitor-required routes have not had a designated monitor assigned to the route during the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter reads.

Read more in The Boston Herald.

How Beacon Hill could expand abortion care for pregnant teens in Mass.

In an article published on February 24, MassLive.com reported on a movement to change the law that currently requires minors under 16 who seek an abortion to either obtain parental consent or go to court and request permission from a superior court judge. Jamie Sabino, Deputy Director of Advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), is quoted in the article, which is excerpted below.

For nearly four decades, a cohort of Massachusetts lawyers have wrangled Beacon Hill lawmakers to remove hurdles for young people seeking abortion care independently, without involving their parents.

The ROE Act, which the Legislature passed in December 2020, expanded access to 16- and 17-year-old individuals, who no longer need parental consent to get an abortion or circumvent their parents by going to court and receiving permission for the procedure from a superior court judge.

But in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year, Jamie Sabino, co-chair of a panel of lawyers that helps minors navigate the judicial bypass process, said there’s heightened urgency to reform what she says is a fraught system that punishes a small fraction of Bay Staters who are younger than 16 and desperately want an abortion.

Sabino, deputy director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, estimates that about 20 individuals younger than 16 are forced to go to court annually to avoid backlash from their parents or guardians. Other teens may cross state lines, such as those who live in Springfield and can receive an abortion in Hartford without needing to involve their parents, she said.

Read the full article on MassLive.com. 

Legal clinic in Somerville offers free aid to help people clear their records of marijuana crimes (The Boston Globe)

In a February 25 article, The Boston Globe reported on a new legal aid clinic in Somerville that brings attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) to help people remove crimes related to marijuana from their official records. An excerpt from the article is below.

SOMERVILLE — More than four years after the first cannabis retailers opened in Massachusetts, the industry has surpassed $4 billion in sales as new dispensaries and delivery services in the recently legalized business push the market to the brink of saturation.

But an event held Saturday afternoon at a church in Somerville sought to raise awareness about another aspect of marijuana legalization that gets less attention but carries the potential to transform lives. The program, called Changing Legacies, offered free legal assistance to people who hope the easing of marijuana laws have made them eligible to expunge state marijuana offenses from their criminal records or seal them from public view in most cases.

Ryan Dominguez, executive director of MASS CultivatED, a workforce development and jobs training program for the cannabis industry, said the free legal aid is the organization’s most popular program.

Since the group was established in 2020, Dominguez said, 125 people have initiated efforts to have their criminal records expunged or sealed with legal assistance offered by MASS CultivatED. Criminal records make it difficult for people to find jobs or housing, or participate in some volunteer opportunities.

“What we are doing is providing the services directly to impacted individuals from the war on drugs,” Dominguez said in an interview. “We focus on three main components of our core program. That is expungement, education, and employment opportunities.”

Read the full story in The Boston Globe. 

Assistance available to low-income landlords (The Standard Times)

In a February 16 article, The Standard Times highlighted the Volunteer Lawyers Project’s (VLP) Landlord Advocacy program, which is providing free legal assistance to landlords with low incomes in Massachusestts. An excerpt from the article is below.

His tenant had not paid rent for close to a year, and the landlord filed an eviction action based on nonpayment of rent.

On the day of trial, with the help of housing court mediation, and the presence of the Wayfinders group, the landlord and tenant were able to enter into an agreement requiring the tenant to immediately apply for RAFT/financial assistance to cover the full rental arrearage and the case was continued to allow for the tenant to file.

The Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association represented the landlord for his next two court dates.

This case study is one example of the support landlords can receive if they are struggling to collect rent and make mortgage payments.

The statewide advocacy program focusing on the financial well-being of small, low-income landlords who are often elderly, non-native English speakers and/or people of color aims to take the pressure off.

Read the full story in The Standard Times/ South Coast Today.

States Scramble to Replace Ripped-Off SNAP Benefits (Pew Trusts)

In a February 13 article, The Pew Charitable Trusts reported on the sophisticated electronic theft scam that left many Massachusetts residents without critical Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Betsy Gwin of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) is quoted. An excerpt from the article is below.

Last September, when Baltimore resident Tzu Yang went grocery shopping for his intellectually disabled daughter with a food benefits card that he thought was worth about $300, he discovered at the checkout that the card had no value left. The same thing happened in October, November and December.

The benefits meant for Hawlie Yang, age 37 but with the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, were being systematically stolen.

Tzu Yang contacted local authorities but never got the money back. The stolen electronic benefits were used locally and as far away as New York, he discovered. But neither he nor police could find out who filched them, and the state agencies involved provided no help or reimbursement.

They told him there’s no returning of benefits stolen from electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards, Yang, a retired businessman, said in a phone interview.

Yang is not alone. All over the country, state agencies and people who receive aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, are reporting the theft of millions of dollars in benefits. And unlike regular credit or debit cards where refunds are often available when thieves poach funds, EBT cards don’t have those protections. That leaves many victims with no recourse.

Read the full article on the Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline blog.