Monthly Archives: January 2015

Walking for Justice

They may have needed snow boots to get there this year, but once again, hundreds of attorneys took part in Thursday’s Walk to the Hill to promote funding for civil legal aid.  This annual event is organized by the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) – a collaboration created by the BBA, the MBA, and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) – and it always makes a great impression on the Legislature.  The largest lobbying day for lawyers in Massachusetts, this year lived up to the hype.  While we are still waiting for final numbers, there were more than enough lawyers to pack the Great Hall, as you can see below.

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Our day started with a Walk to the Hill meet-up and networking event hosted at the BBA by the Solo and Small Firms and New Lawyers Sections.  Led by Gary Bloom and Lianne Henderson, the group enjoyed light breakfast and a discussion of legal aid before heading over to the State House.

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BBA leadership also got in on the act.  At 10:00 am, President Julia Huston met with her Representative, Alice Peisch.

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Shortly thereafter President Huston and President-Elect Lisa Arrowood together met with their Senator, Michael Barrett.

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Both legislators were well-versed in the issues surrounding civil legal aid – not surprising, as they have been strong supporters of the MLAC, which funds civil legal aid programs across the Commonwealth.

By 11:00 AM, registration was beginning, and soon the State House’s Great Hall was standing room only and our twitter feed began buzzing with live tweets of the event.  After an enthusiastic welcome from EJC Chair John Carroll, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants took the podium.  He explained that, while the current MLAC funding of $15 million may sound like a lot of money, it is the rough equivalent of every person in the state buying a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee once a year.  The request for $10 million in additional funding is nothing more than that cup of joe plus a bagel . . . without cream cheese.  He was able to put the numbers in perspective and provide some much needed levity to the event.  He even brought his own props:

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BBA President Julia Huston told the crowd about the cost savings achieved through legal-aid funding, as demonstrated in Investing in Justice, providing attendees with the information they would need to speak knowledgably to their legislators.  MBA President Marsha Kazarosian also expressed her support for civil legal aid.

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Two civil legal aid clients spoke as well, providing the day’s emotional high point.  They each related how civil legal aid attorneys from different parts of the state had changed their lives for the better by helping them gain protection from abusive spouses and win custody of minor children.

J.D. Smeallie, chair of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, was called to the podium by John Carroll to give an impromptu explanation of how we got to this point.  He told how IOLTA funding has dropped $27 million since 2007, while the number of eligible individuals has increased and the pool of civil legal aid attorneys has shrunk.

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Attorney General Maura Healey followed, putting a cap on the speaking program by proclaiming that the functioning of our society and legal system relies on everyone being recognized, included, and represented – civil legal aid assures that everyone has access to that representation.

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By noon, the speaking program was drawing to a close, and it was time for legislative visits.  The hundreds of lawyers assembled in the Great Hall broke off as individuals and small groups, making their way to legislative offices to speak with their respective representatives.

In all, this year’s Walk to the Hill was a great success.  Hundreds of lawyers came, their presence alone making a statement about the private bar’s support of civil legal aid.  They were inspired by the words of the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, bar leaders, and especially civil legal aid clients, and then they spread out throughout the State House to advocate for civil legal aid funding.  Hundreds more participated in Talk to the Hill (and you still can too!), a simultaneous call-in event where lawyers from outside the greater-Boston area phoned their legislators to express similar sentiments.  By taking only about an hour out of their busy days, these lawyers were able to make a huge difference for people in need.

Thank you to all the lawyers who participated – you have truly made a difference.  And we end with a final plea – don’t stop now.  The budget process runs another six months, and we need your continued support.  First up is contacting the Governor, to let him know the importance of civil legal aid.  Keep an eye out for e-alerts from us on key budget times and meet with, call, or send an email to your legislator then, too.  Keep up the relationship, and keep civil legal aid funding their priority.  Thank you again and keep up the great work!

– 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

Walk to the Hill 2015 – A Call to Action

The annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid will take place on Thursday, January 29,  exactly one week from the date of this post.  It is the biggest lobbying event for the Boston legal community and one of the largest of its kind in the country.  Over 500 lawyers will pack the State House’s Great Hall at 11:30 am to hear remarks from the likes of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Attorney General Maura Healey, and BBA President Julia Huston.  By noon, the speeches will end and the most important part of the day begins – legislative office visits.

We cannot stress this enough: go see your legislators!  If you can’t be there in person, give their offices a call.

Don’t know who represents you?  Find them here.  Need a more information?  Here is a fact sheet.  Talking points to begin the conversation?  We’ve got you covered.  We know it can seem daunting, but all it takes is a brief visit with a legislator or staffer – let them know you care about legal aid funding, explain why it’s important, and ask whether they will support it.  It’s that simple.

The BBA has long supported legal aid funding, but this year is unlike any other.  On the heels of our report, Investing in Justice, which followed 18 months of intensive study, we are now better prepared than ever to support our unprecedented ask for an extra $10 million in legal aid funding each of the next three years.  If granted, legal aid funding would rise to $25 million in this year’s budget, $35 million next year, and $45 million the year after.  While this still isn’t enough to solve the shortage in legal services, it will make a significant dent in the rate of turn-aways.  Currently, 64% of eligible individuals, meaning they subsist on less than 125% of the federal poverty level (under $30,000 for a family of four), with valid legal claims, many of them concerning basic life necessities such as shelter or protection from a batterer, cannot receive legal services due to lack of resources.

Investing in Justice goes beyond turn-away statistics; it includes testimony from legal aid clients about how legal services changed their lives, a survey of judges on how unrepresented litigants hinder courts in administering justice and operating efficiently, and quotes from business leaders explaining why they support civil legal aid funding.  Moreover, it includes three extensive studies conducted by independent economic analysts on the return on investment civil legal aid provides.  By their calculations, the state can benefit in the amount of $2 to $5 for every dollar invested in civil legal aid through savings on police, shelter, and emergency care costs, as well as economic growth.

We have written before that the news only reinforces the need for increased civil legal aid funding, and not just from the myriad of stories specifically based on our report.  For example, recently, the Boston Globe ran yet another story on the plight of individuals in need of shelter.  As the article explains, tightened eligibility requirements for homeless shelters force more families into life threatening situations, such as one mother and son who spend nights squatting in emergency rooms and T-stations, and a pregnant woman who spends the night huddled on a Quincy beach.  To quote the Globe: “Housing lawyers say they are overwhelmed with families who have been denied shelter since the regulations went into place a few years ago. Hospital emergency rooms report an increase in the number of people showing up with nowhere else to go.”  Two sentences couldn’t express the issue more clearly.  Increased civil legal aid funding would provide the resources to help families sort through the complex shelter regulations, putting them into shelters and removing them from emergency rooms, T-stations, and unsafe public spaces.

With the state facing a dire economic picture – a $765 million budget shortfall, as reported by Governor Baker’s office – it is going to take more convincing than ever to increase civil legal aid funding.  Yet, we have the perfect argument: increased civil legal aid funding will SAVE the state money.  That’s right, by investing in the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item (0321-1600), Massachusetts will not only help the nearly one million people who qualify for civil legal aid to secure or maintain basic life necessities.  It will also save the state money.  The math is clear, every $1 spent on legal aid to prevent housing and homelessness saves the state $2.69, every $1 spent on legal aid to prevent domestic violence saves $2, $1 each for the state and federal governments.  When legal aid attorneys help their clients secure their rightful federal benefits, such as from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI/SSDI) payments, the state’s economy grows by $5 for every dollar invested.

Think of it as preventative medicine – just as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, investing in civil legal aid saves the state on police, medical, shelter and other costs.  A family that wins a case against a dishonest landlord with the aid of an attorney gets to stay in their house rather than having to resort to a shelter and possibly foster care.  A domestic violence victim who gains protection from a batterer with the help of a legal aid attorney can break the cycle of abuse and avoid the repeated exorbitant costs of emergency medical care.  The numbers don’t lie.

In closing, we urge you to check out Investing in Justice, read the survey results, the testimony from legal aid clients, and the economic reports for yourself.  If you don’t have the time now, read the talking points.  Spread the word to your colleagues and come to Walk to the Hill to bring the message to your elected officials.  Tell them what you learned and make sure they understand that civil legal aid funding is important – to you, to the underprivileged who need legal aid to secure basic life necessities, to a court system overburdened by pro-se litigants, and to the state looking to emerge from a major budget deficit.  We look forward to seeing you at the State House on January 29th!

– 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

Following Up on the CPCS-ADA Salary Study Commission

We’ve written in this space at least twice before about the issue of underpaid assistant district attorneys (ADA’s) and staff attorneys at the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS).  We turn to it again this week, both because it is a pressing issue of fairness and public safety, as well as a priority for the BBA, but also because there are new developments.

The Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, established by former Governor Deval Patrick in July, released its report and recommendations shortly before the end of the Governor’s term.  The key takeaway: The minimum salary for both ADA’s and CPCS attorneys should be tied to that of the starting salary for attorneys in the Commonwealth’s executive-branch (Counsel I) – which stood at $55,360 at the time of the report but rose to $56,594 at the start of 2015.

The report spells out, just how low ADA and CPCS salaries are in comparison to their counterparts in other states.  In neighboring states, as the report says, “The findings were stark — Massachusetts is the lowest, despite a cost of living that is markedly higher.”

Last year, an MBA report made similar findings and drew support from Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe and the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly editorial board.  The MBA emphasized that the low salaries for these public service lawyers, combined with the enormous burden of education debt, causes damaging turnover among fledgling attorneys in DA and CPCS offices and discourages others from even pursuing these jobs.

The Commission – which brought together CPCS and the District Attorneys, the House and the Senate, the MBA and the BBA, among others, and was chaired by the Secretaries of Public Safety and Administration and Finance – brings renewed attention to the issue and demonstrates the universal opinion of all stakeholders that a raise is not only justified, but long overdue.

As BBA Vice-President Carol Starkey, who was our representative on the Commission, put it:

ADAs and CPCS attorneys play a critical role in dispensing justice, and this report shows what the criminal-justice community has known all along – that these public lawyers, charged with protecting public safety and bringing constitutional guarantees of individual rights and procedural fairness to bear in our system, are woefully underpaid by every measure: whether that be in comparison to other government attorneys, in comparison to their colleagues in other states, or in relation to their training and expertise.  It’s long past time to address this general unfairness through a meaningful salary increase that would make these essential jobs, the very keystone of our criminal justice system, competitive to meet the cost-of-living needs of these committed lawyers.

After its release, the report was the subject of news items in the Boston Globe and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

The MBA and Commission reports provide some much-needed momentum behind the push for raises in the 2015-16 legislative session.  However, the timing turns out to be far from ideal, with the state facing a fiscal crisis of a scale yet to be determined.  Estimates vary widely as to the size of the hole that has opened up in the state budget halfway through the 2015 fiscal year, and new Governor Charlie Baker and his team are looking into whether cuts may be necessary now, and how this situation may affect his FY2016 budget (due out in the next several weeks).

The bottom line for salary increases is that we will have to work even harder than expected to achieve our goal, in the face of these fiscal headwinds.  This will nevertheless continue to be a BBA priority, and we will keep you updated on developments.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Is The Moment Right For Comprehensive Mandatory-Minimum Reform?

This week, in her Let the Record Show blog, BBA President Julia Huston talks about a visit to a Dorchester session of Drug Court, which deals with offenders whose problems stem from substance abuse.  Below, Issue Spot takes a look at sentencing policies that address offenders who are convicted of drug offenses – specifically, those that trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Over the past decade or so, a large and growing number of states, many of them “red”, have rolled back mandatory minimums – which are in many instances an artifact of the “tough on crime” approach that gained favor in the 1990s.  With budgets stretched and prisons overflowing – and with violent-crime rates down dramatically – states have found savings through mandatory-minimum reform and other changes to sentencing and incarceration policies, in some cases reallocating those savings toward more effective criminal-justice measures.

Massachusetts has made some recent changes around the edges but has been slower to embrace the kind of wholesale move away from mandatory minimums that the BBA (among many others) has long endorsed.  With the start of a new year and a new legislative session, however, that may be changing, as a review of some of the key players in this debate shows:

Former Governor Deval Patrick

In both 2010 and 2012, the outgoing Governor signed landmark legislation that reduced mandatory minimums for a host of non-violent drug offenses.  Yet as he left office, he told reporters that not having been able to go further was one of his biggest regrets.  In one of his last acts in this area, he reconstituted the state’s Sentencing Commission, which is charged with “developing systematic sentencing guidelines.”  The Commission has also been gathering extensive data on sentencing, which can be used as the basis for discussion of any changes to sentencing laws.

Governor Charlie Baker

As a candidate, Governor Baker told Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) that he would oppose extending mandatories or expanding them to additional crimes.  He went on to express his support for their repeal for drug offenses, adding, “I believe reforming minimum sentences could be part of an overall strategy to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated.”

Someone with Governor Baker’s background and reputation as a number-cruncher both inside government (as Governor Bill Weld’s chief budget-maker) and in the private sector (as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care) – may well appreciate the savings that can be achieved by keeping more people out of prison (such as through Drug Courts), by reducing sentences for those who do go to prison, and by improving the recidivism rate through evidence-based re-entry programs.  His selection of a Secretary of Public Safety — one of only two seats in his Cabinet yet to be filled — may send a key signal as to whether this will be a priority for Governor Baker.

Attorney General Maura Healey

During last year’s campaign, the new attorney general was quite vocal about her opposition to mandatory minimums.  She posted her plans for comprehensive criminal justice reform on-line, including an end to mandatories for non-violent drug crimes and expansion of Drug Court (and Mental-Health Court).  As the state’s chief law-enforcement officer, she will have a critical voice in this debate.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg

A longtime champion of sentencing reform, the new Senate President looks to continue his commitment to this issue.  In his first speech as Senate President, he called for a “tough and smart” criminal justice system.  He also voiced concerns about high incarceration rates for those suffering from mental health and drug addiction problems, noting that Massachusetts lagged behind other states in this area.  Though he did not specifically commit to examining mandatory minimum sentences, Rosenberg, a former member of the Criminal Justice Commission (see below), is well-informed on the issue.

House Speaker Robert De Leo

The only returning leader on Beacon Hill, the Speaker has also been the quietest on sentencing policy.  He has shepherded through two rounds of mandatory-minimum reform — in each case as part of broader criminal-justice reform (CORI reform in 2010 and expansion of the “three strikes” law in 2012).

There are numerous members of the Speaker’s caucus who oppose significant reductions in mandatories, but under the leadership of Rep. Tom Sannicandro and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a new bipartisan (and bicameral) “harm reduction” caucus – boasting more than 60 members from both houses – has come together to support broad reforms on criminal-justice policies affecting drug offenses.  They are expected to file a bill next week that would repeal most, if not all, existing mandatories for drug crimes.

Chief Justice Gants

The state’s highest-ranking judge and one of the leaders of the judicial branch made his position clear in his “State of the Judiciary” speech this past October, asking every trial court department with criminal jurisdiction to convene a working group to ensure that all sentences are individualized and evidence-based.  He went on to describe the disparate impact mandatory minimum sentences have on racial and ethnic minorities and said, “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism.”  He has made those feelings known in other forums as well and clearly intends this to be one of his top priorities during the new legislative session, as he seeks to build relationships with the leaders — most of them, like him, new to their positions — of the other two branches of government.

Criminal Justice Commission

This standing commission, first created in the FY12 state budget, has been operating mostly under the radar for more than three years, under the leadership of two different Secretaries of Public Safety.  Made up of dozens of members representing stakeholders such as prosecutors, defense attorneys, the Attorney General, the sheriffs, the Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Youth Services (to name just a few), the panel includes Marty Murphy as its BBA representative.  They have been meeting monthly and deliberating over no less broad a range of issues — from pre-trial diversion to security classifications for prisoners to measurement of recidivism — but with the Patrick Administration coming to a close, they proceeded to votes on three key recommendations late last year, including one to remove mandatory minimums for all drug offenses.

Others

Though they by no means speak with one voice on sentencing, the state’s 14 sheriffs — who operate the county jails where inmates serving shorter sentences are housed — are at the front lines of the incarceration crisis.  Several have spoken out on the need to rein in mandatory minimums.

We know these individuals are certainly not alone in their stance. In fact, there is strong polling evidence that the most important constituency of all, the public, has shifted its views, with solid majorities now favoring judicial discretion over mandatory sentences and prevention and rehabilitation over enforcement and punishment.

Many others share their concerns about mass incarceration and the unfairness of mandatory minimum sentencing.  We look forward to working with all of the above stakeholders, and any others interested in improving the criminal justice system by eliminating mandatory minimums, and we will do our best to keep you updated on our progress.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association