State Budget Update: Conference Committee

The fate of the Fiscal Year 2020 Massachusetts state budget, and with it several BBA priorities, is now in the hands of the six legislators who make up the House/Senate Conference Committee:

(If you are represented by any of the above, please contact them now, to express your support for the provisions below. Confirm your elected officials here.  Contact information is found through the individual links above.)

We regularly use this space to keep you updated on our priorities and our advocacy.  As we enter the final stages of the budget process—with a conference-committee compromise budget expected within weeks, at which point the plan would be sent to the Governor—the BBA has sent a letter to the conferees, outlining our priorities in four key areas:

Funding for civil legal aid (line-item 0321-1600)

This funding, through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) has long been a top BBA priority. We work with MLAC and the Massachusetts Bar Association, as partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, in our advocacy—the most-visible manifestation of which each year is the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.

Since the 2014 release of Investing in Justice, the report of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, we have had an even stronger basis for our case on behalf of MLAC’s line-item, pointing to our surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of qualified applicants must be turned away by providers for lack of resources, and to independent research demonstrating the positive return on the Commonwealth’s investment in the area.

In the intervening five years, the Legislature has been very generous in increasing MLAC funding, yet the demand continues to grow apace.  This year, the BBA supports the Senate’s appropriation of $24 million, which would represent a $3 million increase from the current FY19 figure.

Funding for the Trial Court (multiple line-items)

In spite of steady, generous increases in their appropriations from the Legislature in the years since the Great Recession, the Trial Court remains underfunded. Over the last few years, it has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less. As a result of this work, they have been able to continue the efficient and effective operation of the courts, even with a 17% reduction in staffing between FY09 and FY18.

It is essential that our courts are adequately funded, and we have urged the conferees to adopt the higher appropriation for each line-item.

We were strong supporters of statewide expansion of the Housing Court, and, consistent with that position, we asked the committee to continue to fully fund the implementation of the expansion.

Funding for re-entry services to reduce recidivism (line-item 0339-1011)

While we remain grateful to the Legislature for last session’s sweeping reforms aimed at making our criminal-justice system more fair and effective, Massachusetts continues to trail other states in funding re-entry programs that help prevent individuals from getting trapped in cycles of recidivism. In the our 2017 criminal justice reform report, No Time to Wait, we highlighted the “lack of program availability” as one of the three reasons that so many are denied access to these vital resources and urged the Commonwealth to “ensure adequate funding and accountability for anti-recidivism reforms.”

Each year, thousands of Massachusetts residents are released from county jails and state prisons, many with little or no resources to help in securing essential needs like employment and housing.  Without any support, the likelihood of returning to illegal practices, and re-entering the justice system, greatly increases.  Community-based residential re-entry services, like those that would be funded through this line-item, offer safe housing, workforce development, and case management, fostering connections and stability for those re-entering society.

For these reasons, the BBA supports the House’s appropriation of $4.5 million.

Funding for Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (line-items 0321-1500 and 0321-1510)

CPCS plays a vital role in our judicial system, providing representation to indigent persons in criminal and civil cases, and administrative proceedings, in keeping with the right to counsel. Adequate funding helps CPCS salaries of their staff attorneys, who are woefully underpaid in comparison to their colleagues in other states, and to attorneys of similar experience in the executive branch. This is not merely our conclusion but that of the Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

We have asked that the conference committee adopt the higher level of funding for CPCS operations and for its private-counsel program.

We also requested that the final budget incorporate the Senate’s budget language allowing for an expansion of CPCS’s emergency authority to waive statutory billable-hours limitations under certain limited circumstances. 

Currently, the state faces what the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court has called a “constitutional emergency.” In cases where a child is facing removal from parental custody, the parents and children have a right to representation at a hearing within 72 hours. There are too few attorneys taking up these cases, and as a result, children and parents, especially in the western parts of the state, are being denied their constitutional right to a timely hearing.

Adequate funding, in conjunction with expanded capacity for bar advocates, or private attorneys who defend indigent clients, would assist CPCS in finding attorneys willing to take on these difficult cases and protect the constitutional rights of these parents and children.

We expect to know soon what action the conference committee proposes on these items, and we anticipate one final push to urge Governor Charlie Baker to act on them, once the budget arrives on his desk.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association