Monthly Archives: February 2014

Continuing the Conversation: The Equal Justice Coalition’s Legislative Recognition Reception

As we’ve said before, Walk to the Hill is only the start of civil legal aid advocacy in Massachusetts, the kick-off event to a year-round commitment to advocacy.  On January 30, 2014, the Massachusetts legal community made a solid showing at the statehouse.  Leaders of the courts, the bar, and a civil legal aid client all spoke to nearly 600 lawyers gathered in the Great Hall of the Statehouse.  Hundreds visited their elected officials to speak about the importance of civil legal aid funding and ask for an increase in MLAC funding.

A month later we returned to the Statehouse to say thank you, with the Equal Justice Coalition’s Legislative Recognition Reception.  The event honored current and former legislators for their outstanding support of access to justice for low-income Massachusetts residents with critical civil legal problems.  The awards were as follows:

Beacon of Justice:

Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo

Representative Brian Dempsey, Chair, House Committee on Ways & Means

Champion of Justice:

Senator Stephen Brewer, Chair, Senate Committee on Ways & Means

Senate President Therese Murray

Eugene O’Flaherty, Corporation Counsel for the City of Boston and former House Chair, Joint Committee on the Judiciary

Congresswoman Katherine Clark, former Senate Chair, Joint Committee on the Judiciary

Supporters of Justice:

All 68 House and Senate co-sponsors of the MLAC FY14 budget amendment

This was a great opportunity to continue the discussion on civil legal aid funding.  It highlighted the importance of frequent and ongoing advocacy as former state officials Eugene O’Flaherty and U.S. Representative Katherine Clark were honored with as “Champions of Justice,” a lifetime achievement award for their commitment to supporting civil legal aid.  With these two familiar faces no longer working inside the Statehouse for civil legal aid, we need to work even harder to make sure that other legislators take up this noble cause.

We hope that you will continue to do your part.  Remind your State Senator and Representative that civil legal aid is important and increased funding is necessary.  Let them know that it matters to their constituents.  Finally, be a resource – tell them the impact it has on your life and work.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Justice System Salaries: Public Defenders and State Prosecutors

When we talk about funding our justice system, we include our state courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and also civil legal aid attorneys.  On Tuesday, February 11th, the Joint House and Senate Committees on Ways & Means held a budget hearing. Representatives from every piece of the justice system were on hand to testify.

The CPCS budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 is a maintenance request of $206.6 million, plus an additional $12 million to fund a pay increase for both CPCS staff attorneys and private bar advocates.  The CPCS budget request would increase the starting salary for staff attorneys from $40,000 to $50,000 and would also effectuate an hourly rate increase for bar advocates.  Here’s the breakdown: a $5/hour increase for murder cases, superior court cases — including sexually dangerous persons cases — and care and protection/termination of parental rights cases.  The hourly rate for all other cases would be increased by $2/hour.

CPCS does not look like it did in 2011 when the Legislature mandated that 25% of all indigent assigned cases be handled by staff attorneys.  It has grown significantly and staff attorneys are handling close to that 25% caseload target.  In 2011, there were 282 staff attorneys; today there are 482.

It’s no secret that public defenders working for CPCS and our assistant district attorneys are paid woefully low salaries.  A public defender’s salary starts at $40,000 and an assistant district attorney’s salary starts even lower at $37,500.  This compensation ranks Massachusetts 41st nationally for entry level salaries for public defenders.  When adjusted by the cost-of-living index, Massachusetts is dead last.

An attorney doesn’t accept a position with CPCS or a District Attorney’s office because it pays well.  Both of these jobs require sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. Public defenders have made a commitment to uphold the constitutional right to counsel ensured by our federal and state constitutions.  Assistant District Attorneys have made a commitment to serving the interests of the Commonwealth by prosecuting alleged criminal behavior.

But the low starting pay is only part of the problem.  The ability to retain experienced prosecutors and public defenders has become a challenge.    Significant time and resources are spent training lawyers who then leave for jobs paying much more.

These facts beg the question: what impact do these low salaries have on attrition? How do they affect the overall system’s ability to deliver justice efficiently and effectively?  We are pleased that CPCS has decided it’s time to revisit raising salaries.  Both our public defenders and our state prosecutors deserve adequate compensation.

– Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Public Hearing on Forensic Sciences Comes on the Heels of BBA Drug Lab Report

On Monday, the Boston Bar Association released its Drug Lab Task Force Report making three recommendations including a call for enhanced auditing and oversight of our state drug labs.  The next day, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a public hearing and 4 bills dealing directly with forensic sciences were on the agenda.

All 4 bills would address some of the concerns raised in our Drug Lab Report.  S 1112, filed by Senator Brownsberger, requires all forensic sciences laboratories to be independent; establishes an oversight board; requires that all forensic sciences laboratories be accredited by an accrediting body; and establishes a forensic sciences laboratory ombudsman within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.  S 1122, filed by Senator Creem, is modeled off one of the recommendations in the BBA’s Getting it Right Report and establishes a forensic sciences advisory board.   S 1153 filed by Senator Moore, requires forensic service providers to be accredited.  The final bill, S 1175, filed by Senator Tarr, requires more oversight of crime labs and seeks to establish a forensic services drug laboratory oversight board within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

A lot of positive actions have been taken in the wake of mishandling of evidence at our state drug labs.  For example, the Courts worked closely with defense attorneys and prosecutors to come up with policies and procedures for dealing with these cases.  In addition, Governor Patrick appointed David Meier to oversee the central office charged with assessing the criminal cases potentially jeopardized by the mishandling of evidence.  Meier then conducted a case by case review of individuals potentially affected.  Ultimately, Control of the state drug labs was moved from the Department of Public Health to the State Police Forensic Services Group.

We have an opportunity to really get it right within our criminal justice system.  The Executive Branch, the Courts, and all involved have taken steps in the right direction but there’s more to be done.  It’s good to see the Legislature is also thinking of solutions and we hope that these collective actions will help prevent another drug lab incident.

– Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Update on the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts

The BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts met for the fifth time at the end of January.  We are making great progress as we gather facts, information, and real life stories of people whose lives have changed for the better because of assistance they received from legal aid attorneys.

The Task Force is composed of 27 leaders in the Boston legal community, including representatives from private practice, in-house counsel, academia, every branch of government, and legal services.  The Task Force was formed in the spring of 2013 and has had regular meetings almost every other month.

In early meetings, Task Force members worked to draft surveys for legal services providers and judges to quantify facts and observations on civil litigation and aid.  They devised three surveys and sent them out to the appropriate players.  The Task Force created two legal services surveys – a “use of funds” and a “turn-away” survey.  These surveys would show how many cases legal services providers completed in a year, how many people they turned away over two single-week periods, and how much legal assistance they provided short of representation.  Results are still coming in, but the legal aid providers have been extremely supportive, helping us reach nearly 100% participation.

The “judges’ survey” asked for judges’ observations on unrepresented civil litigants in their courtrooms and for their ideas on how to increase representation.  Thanks to the support of Chief Justice Paula Carey and her staff, we were able to electronically distribute the Task Force’s survey to all 400 Massachusetts state court judges.  So far, nearly 100 judges statewide have responded with thoughtful and well-reasoned answers.

Our outside analysts who are donating their time pro bono are still analyzing the data, drawing conclusions, and working to find ways to graphically represent the numbers in a meaningful way.

They are also working on three in-depth studies to quantify potential cost-savings for the Commonwealth from civil legal aid funding.  These studies are in the areas of domestic violence; housing, evictions, and homelessness; and federal benefits that can flow into the state as a result of civil legal services.  All of these studies are nearing completion.

Finally, the Task Force was able to put a human face on the numbers we had been talking about for months.  In November, we were joined by a legal services client who was able to escape homelessness with her young daughter thanks to civil legal aid.  In January, we heard from a client who regained child custody from an abusive spouse.  Their stories were moving and provided striking examples of why the Task Force’s work is so important – the successful resolution of their legal matters would not have been possible without the assistance of a civil legal aid attorney.

The Task Force has two remaining meetings in the spring when it will draft and finalize its much anticipated report.  We will keep you updated on all its latest news.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association