Tag Archive for: justice

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.

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.

 

When Legal Assistance Can Improve Health

By Lonnie Powers

In April, The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership (NCMLP), an organization dedicated to “leading health, public health, and legal sectors in an integrated, upstream approach to combating health-harming social conditions,” played host to more than 400 legal and health care professionals at its 11th annual Medical-Legal Partnership Summit in Indianapolis. The annual confab seeks to help organizations leverage the various ways in which civil legal aid—free legal assistance and representation for low-income people facing non-criminal legal issues—can protect individual and public health.

The idea that legal assistance could impact public health was proved in 1975, when California Rural Legal Assistance won a groundbreaking victory in Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety, which banned the use of short-handled hoes by farm workers because they forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time, causing them crippling back injuries. Field managers had required the use of short-handled hoes because if they saw workers standing up, they knew they were not doing their work. After the hoes were banned, back injuries among the farm workers dropped more than 30 percent.

More recently in Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) won two victories that enhance the health, safety, and independence of disabled people. First, GBLS settled a federal class action lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) for disability discrimination, based on claims that DTA didn’t have adequate systems to provide disabled clients with reasonable accommodations and that it routinely screened out disabled people from food stamp and cash assistance programs in violation of federal law. In a second class action lawsuit, GBLS took on the MBTA, Boston’s regional public transportation system, reaching a settlement requiring the MBTA to improve accessibility to bus and subway services. As a result, the MBTA has made nearly all of its stations fully accessible and has trained staff to respond to the needs of differently abled people using public transportation.

The formal medical-legal partnership model was created at Boston Medical Center (BMC) in the 1990s, when Dr. Barry Zuckerman, then the chief of pediatrics, became frustrated by the lack of clinical progress of his young patients as a result of substandard housing, poor nutrition, and other life circumstances―what are known as “social determinants of health.” Zuckerman hired a part-time attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services for the Pediatrics Department to assist his patients in addressing these unmet needs. The success of the program ultimately led to the creation of NCMLP.

Today, there are nearly 300 medical-legal partnerships in health care facilities in 36 states, including a partnership launched last September between Community Legal Aid and UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester. Medical-legal partnershipsinvolve embedding lawyers and paralegals in the medical setting to ensure that patients can meet basic needs for food, housing and utilities, education, employment, health care, and personal and family stability and safety―all of which are essential ingredients to maintaining good health. The concept is best encapsulated by the description of a September 2015 segment of PBS NewsHourthat examined a medical-legal partnership in Nebraska: “What happens when a little boy gets a lifesaving bone marrow transplant for his leukemia, but can’t return home because the house he lives in has cockroaches that threaten his recovery? His doctor calls a lawyer.”

The partnerships go far beyond direct advocacy to encompass training for health care workers to identify health-harming social conditions, reforming clinical practice and institutional policies to better respond to patients experiencing health-harming conditions, and preventing such conditions by detecting the broader societal patterns that create them and advocating for policy and regulatory remedies.

Medical-legal partnerships are taking off as health care providers increasingly acknowledge their positive effects on patient health, the ability of health care workers to better understand and screen patients for social determinants of health, and in reining in health care costs. A study of a medical-legal partnership in California, for example, found that two-thirds of the families who participated in the program reported improved child health and well-being. Another study, which focused on a collaboration in Georgia, found increased physician satisfaction, a bump in Medicaid reimbursements to the partnering hospitals for their services, and a savings of $10,000 in annual continuing education costs.

From migrant farmworkers in California in the 1970s to disabled people in Massachusetts three decades later, civil legal aid organizations have long demonstrated expertise in identifying and rectifying the environmental factors that adversely impact the health and safety of vulnerable and underserved communities. Institutionalizing that expertise on the health care continuum through medical-legal partnerships is a logical step that enables our health care system to treat our most complex and vulnerable patients more effectively, efficiently, and cheaply. And that benefits all of us.

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

Investing in Legal Aid Is Good Business

By Lonnie Powers

In law as in medicine, an emergency room is neither the most cost effective nor beneficial way to deliver justice or provide health care. Seeing your doctor regularly makes it easier and less expensive for individuals and for the health care system overall to stay healthy. Having a lawyer to advise and assist you when you confront a legal problem brings similar benefits to the system of justice.

Unfortunately, because lawyers are not available for those who cannot afford them in civil matters, the courts have become “the emergency rooms of society” as New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman put it in an article for The Judge’s Journal earlier this year. Courtrooms are where we turn when we need help resolving conflicts over basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities, and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence.

Just as operating rooms need trained doctors, the courts only work when all parties have access to legal advice and assistance. If, as often happens, only one side has a lawyer, the playing field is anything but level for the person without help and advice. While people facing serious criminal charges have a right to a lawyer, that is not the case in even very serious civil matters. In civil matters, if you cannot afford an attorney, you can apply for legal aid services, which are approved on the basis of financial need. But there are not nearly enough resources to meet the need. A staggering 64 percent of eligible clients in Massachusetts are turned away by civil legal aid organizations due to lack of resources according to a recent report by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

What this means for our courts, in practical terms, is that court staff have to spend more time assisting litigants who are trying to represent themselves; civil court proceedings are markedly slowed down; evidence is not properly presented; and litigants make repeat court appearances. Most alarming, however, is that 60 percent of the Massachusetts judges surveyed for the report stated unequivocally that lack of legal representation was hindering the courts’ ability to ensure equal justice for litigants attempting to represent themselves.

This isn’t just a matter of concern for the usual suspects, such as civil legal aid attorneys, case workers, social justice advocates, and those in need of legal services who cannot afford them. It’s a matter of grave concern for the state’s business leaders. Susan Alexander, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary for Biogen Idec, Inc., which employs more than 3,000 Massachusetts residents, notes in her statement to the task force report that Biogen, like all businesses in the Commonwealth, can only thrive in a healthy state. “Legal aid has the power to maintain safe and vibrant communities during difficult economic times by keeping families from homelessness and poverty,” Alexander writes.

Lon Povich, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of BJ’s Wholesale Club, notes simply that the inefficiencies generated in the courts by pro se, or self-represented, litigants damages the entire system. “Saying that these individual, civil cases ‘clog’ court dockets makes it sound like they are unimportant, which they are not, but they take more time of our overworked judges and staff than do similar matters involving represented parties,” Povich says. “As a result, the current deluge of pro se litigants limits the effectiveness of the courts for all individuals and businesses in our state.”

Left unsaid by these business leaders is another salient point: the return on investment in civil legal aid services. Three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Lastly, every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

The solution proposed by the Task Force is to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid by $30 million over the next three years. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

Such a move would likely save the state between $34 million and $51 million in economic benefits. While that alone should be enough to convince policymakers to make the investment, there is one more compelling reason to do so. The benefits of a fairer and more effective justice system for all of us, especially for those in need, are simply incalculable.

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.