Monthly Archives: January 2014

Statehouse Update

This week both Governor Patrick and Speaker DeLeo outlined their priorities for the upcoming year.  In his final State of the Commonwealth on Tuesday night, Governor Patrick emphasized investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure. 

The next day, Speaker DeLeo addressed the entire House of Representatives, listing an increase in minimum wage coupled with business-friendly reforms, stricter gun control laws, and a domestic violence bill as three of his top issues. 

As we focus on legislative and budget activities at the Statehouse it’s important to realize that although this legislative term may appear uneventful from the outside, it has been full of activity.  Even without high-profile debates on big-issue bills there’s a lot going on. 

Take for instance, the fact that there has been an unprecedented amount of turnover in elected officials and leadership positions.  Recently, long time House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, announced his resignation to become corporation counsel to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.  This leaves the House chairmanship open.  Meanwhile, Senator William Brownsberger has only held the Senate chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee for a matter of weeks. 

Other leadership positions currently vacant include the House second assistant majority leader and the chairmanship of the House Ethics Committee.  These positions will all be filled in the coming weeks.

Legislatively, the statehouse is poised to take action on a number of laws.  Significant bills addressing welfare reform, compounding pharmacies, and veterans services remain in conference committees.  Just last week, a group of lawmakers held a press conference in support of a juvenile justice bill comply with the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Diatchenko.  The bill requires that juveniles convicted of first degree murder serve 35 years before parole eligibility. 

From a budget perspective – the Governor’s budget has been released and we now turn our attention to the House and Senate as they develop their budget numbers.  The House Ways & Means Budget will come first in early April, followed by House and Senate budgets in the following months.  A final budget will be ready by July 1st

All in all, every indication points to a very eventful next few months as staffing and leadership positions are filled and legislation and budget discussions come to the fore.     

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Governor’s Budget and Walk to the Hill

Yesterday Governor Patrick released his proposal for the Fiscal Year 2015 state budget –his final budget before he leaves office.  While Governor Patrick’s $36.4 billion budget focuses heavily on education and investments in the life sciences, we were pleased to see his proposals in the area of criminal justice.  One proposal would provide a modest increase in spending to help former inmates successfully reintegrate into society.  Another proposal included $7 million for a program to reduce juvenile recidivism. 

Here’s what the Governor recommended for the Trial Court and for Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation:

The Massachusetts Trial Court

We are glad to see that Governor Patrick proposed funding the Massachusetts Trial Court at their maintenance budget request of $615 million plus an additional $2 million for specialty courts.   A maintenance budget is the cost of maintaining current services in the next fiscal year and takes into consideration adjustments for costs associated with inflation, caseload changes, and certain other factors. 

Developing effective specialty courts and expanding the ones we already have in the areas of drug, mental health, homelessness and veterans issues is a great investment.  Nationally, these courts have proven effective at reducing recidivism, shortening jail stays, saving money, and helping convicts return to society.  The additional funding will help expand the Massachusetts specialty courts program, standardizing it across the state in the areas most in need, and pay for data collection to study its effects to assure that Massachusetts achieves the best results. 

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation

Governor Patrick also recommended $14 million in funding for MLAC.  While this represents a $1 million increase over last year’s appropriation, this level of funding is $3 million shy of MLAC’s $17 million budget request, meaning legal services programs will still struggle to meet even half of the overwhelming need for civil legal services. 

Our attention now turns to the Legislature.  We need to persuade both the House and Senate to hold onto the $617 million for the Trial Court and to include the full $17 million in funding for MLAC.  The House Budget will come out first in April, followed by the Senate budget in May.  

With one week to go before Walk to the Hill, we need your help.  Join us at the Great Hall of the State House at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 30th as we kick off this event, then talk to your legislator.  But this year, we urge you to also commit to continue those conversations throughout the budget process.  That is the real challenge. 

You can help us — become an advocate.  Let your legislators know you pay attention to their voting and you care about this issue. 

Become a resource.  As a lawyer and community member, who better to keep your legislators informed on, say, how an increase in pro se litigants affects justice, the court system, your own work, and the citizens of the Commonwealth? 

Become an ally.  Personal relationship building goes a long way in any profession – politics is no different.

Here are some helpful tips to help you get the most out of interacting with your elected officials and/or their staff on Walk to the Hill day and beyond.

  – Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
Comments are disabled for this blog. To submit your comments please e-mail  issuespot@bostonbar.org

Another Victory for Civil Gideon

Due process rights recently took another step forward as Hawai’i joined the overwhelming majority of states that automatically appoint counsel for indigent parents in child welfare proceedings.  On January 6th, the Hawai’i Supreme Court held unanimously that indigent parents have a constitutional right to legal counsel in cases where the state seeks to remove children from their parents’ home and place them into the foster care system. 

Under Massachusetts law, legal counsel must be appointed within 14 days of a petition filed for care and protection proceedings.  These are difficult cases in which a juvenile court judge must decide what is in the best interest of the child.  The judge determines whether a child has been or is at risk of serious abuse or neglect by a parent or guardian, whether the guardian is fit to care for the child, and who will have custody.   

The ruling in Hawai’i came in the case of In The Interest Of TM, in which the Department of Human Services (DHS) tried to take custody of a child from the petitioner.  The petitioner was not granted counsel until 19 months into proceedings terminating her parental rights.  The Hawai’i Supreme Court held that the Family Court abused its discretion by failing to appoint counsel earlier, noting that the delay did not give the petitioner a fair chance to defend herself due to the complex legal issues at hand and the significance of the proceedings.  Furthermore, the Court noted that the petitioner’s behavior improved significantly after the appointment of an attorney – she started making positive progress in her personal and home life, in large part because she was better able to understand what she needed to do in order to have a chance at custody of her child.   

When a state doesn’t require and subsidize legal counsel, the alternative is often pro se litigants who are at a major disadvantage at achieving justice.  The stakes are high in these cases and everyone should be represented by an attorney. 

 

Don’t forget to mark your calendars on Thursday, January 30th for the 15th annual Walk to the Hill.  This event, where 650 lawyers speak with legislators and staffers on the impact of civil legal aid funding in Massachusetts, is one of the largest of its kind nationally and kicks off the year of advocating for legal services.

 

UPDATE – For those looking for more information after last week’s post, we recommend this video on juvenile justice issues in which attorney Hank Coxe gives an entertaining and moving speech on the subject.

  – Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
Comments are disabled for this blog. To submit your comments please e-mail  issuespot@bostonbar.org

Juvenile Justice Through The Possibility of Parole

Following the BBA Council’s unanimous approval of a set of juvenile justice principles supporting the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled in the case of Diatchenko vs. District Attorney for the District & Others that these sentences are indeed unconstitutional.  The plaintiff, Gregory Diatchenko, who had been serving a life without parole sentence for a murder he committed in 1981 at age 17, is immediately eligible for parole.  In addition, due to the retroactive implications for other juvenile life without parole convicts who have served at least 15 years, roughly 63 inmates will now become parole eligible for the first time.  However, as underscored by a recent editorial in the Boston Globe, “eligibility for parole” merely entitles a convict to a hearing.  At that point it is up to the parole board to consider whether the prisoner has changed and taken full responsibility for his or her actions. 

The BBA has long supported bills abolishing the juvenile life without parole sentences in prior legislative sessions.  The dialogue gained further momentum recently after last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama which held that juvenile life without parole sentences for minors are a “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment.  Judges must consider the defendants’ youth and the nature of the crime before handing down a sentence without parole.

The SJC’s decision went beyond mere compliance with the Miller holding, explaining that the judges considered current scientific research showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed structurally or functionally before the age of 18.  Thus, a judge cannot ascertain with any reasonable degree of certainty that a juvenile is irretrievably depraved and deserving of the life without parole punishment. 

The SJC’s holding supports most of the substance of the BBA’s approved principles.  But the BBA also calls for individualized evidentiary sentencing hearings for juveniles, considering a number of issues specific to juveniles in addition to traditional factors required by law, as well as a statutory right to counsel at parole hearings for juveniles.

So what comes next?  Parole boards will begin hearing the cases of those juveniles sentenced to life without parole and making their determinations.  Furthermore, the legislature may put bills on the fast track to passage in order to bring the laws into compliance with this ruling.  We at the BBA applaud the SJC for their ruling and look forward to these next steps.

 – Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
Comments are disabled for this blog. To submit your comments please e-mail  issuespot@bostonbar.org