Posts Categorized: specialty court

BBA President Visits Veterans’ Treatment Court

This Veterans Day, while we give thanks to the many veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much to assure our safety and security, we wanted to take the opportunity to report on our visit to Veterans Treatment Court.  You may recall that last year, BBA President Lisa Arrowood visited a number of Specialty Courts, including Judge Eleanor Sinnott’s Veterans’ Treatment Court (read about her visits to Drug Court, Mental Health, and Homeless Court).  She was so impressed by her experiences that we honored the Specialty Courts at our annual Law Day Dinner this past spring.

In case you aren’t familiar with them, so-called Specialty Courts are court sessions dedicated to resolving certain issues underlying criminal behavior and/or treating certain populations.  There are several types of specialty court sessions:

  • Drug Court – adult and juvenile, and family sessions
  • Homeless Court
  • Mental Health Court
  • Veterans’ Treatment Court

They provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment focused on treating mental health or substance abuse issues in the defendants’ lives.  Judges balance treatment and accountability for participants – considering the entirety of concerns they face and meeting with them frequently to monitor and work on solving the problems underlying their criminal behavior.  Judges provide support and oversight, working with probation officers who provide intensive supervision and Department of Public Health clinicians who help participants to access effective treatment and therapy.

There are 36 Specialty Court sessions in District and Boston Municipal Courts throughout the state, including 23 drug courts, five veterans’ treatment courts, and eight mental health courts.  They have received funding through the state budget since FY2015 ($3 million).  They were level funded this past year at $3.2 million after receiving a $230,000 increase in FY2016, despite the Trial Court requesting a $2.8 million module to fund expansion efforts.

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Veterans’ Treatment Court Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan and BBA President Carol Starkey

BBA President Carol Starkey jumped at the chance to see the Specialty Courts firsthand.  On November 1, she spent the afternoon at Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan’s Veterans’ Treatment Court in Dedham District Court.  Judge Hogan Sullivan serves as Director of Specialty Courts for the District Court Department and established the Norfolk County Veterans’ Treatment Court in 2012, the first of its kind in Massachusetts.  As described on the court’s website:

Veterans’ treatment courts are designed to handle criminal cases involving defendants who have a history of military service through a coordinated effort among the veterans services delivery system, community-based providers, and the court. The sessions aim to improve public safety while dealing with the underlying issues of posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma.  Abstinence from drugs and alcohol, mandated treatment, swift accountability, and weekly interaction with the court are requirements of the Veterans Treatment Court.

The program typically requires a 12 to 24 month commitment, which must be voluntarily given by the participant who also must agree to participate in “any and all” court recommendations.  Participants must have at least completed basic training to be eligible.  However, it is open to all veterans regardless of their discharge status, though only those with honorable discharges can access certain Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits the court has access to.  Its stated mission is: “To support veterans and their families through a coordinated effort among the veterans services delivery system, community based providers, and the Court, thereby improving public safety while leaving no veteran behind.”  This packet from the court has extremely detailed information about the process and procedures it follows.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Judge Hogan Sullivan prior to the session.  She candidly explained that Veterans’ Treatment Court is “the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do.”  She thinks of her court as basically a hybrid between mental health and drug courts, though it has some further complicating factors that those courts do not, such as higher occurrences of certain mental health afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.  It also often has to address violence issues, many related to guns, unsurprisingly since they are a staple of military service.  Because of the intensiveness of the program, the court can accommodate only about 30-35 individuals at a single time.  While most of the recommendations for program participation come from probation, some also come from defense attorneys, whom we hope will increasingly recommend the court for their clients as a way to secure services and decrease the potential for recidivism.

Judge Hogan Sullivan compared her process to peeling an onion – her team peels through issues, treating them layer by layer at the appropriate time and in the most effective ways.  Most of the defendants come to court weekly unless they are in residential treatment programs.  Once there, they benefit from the assistance of a defense attorney, probation officer, clinician, veteran outreach worker, and even the prosecutor plays an important role.  They are also assigned a volunteer veteran mentor who is not involved in their cases, but is simply there to provide life support and understanding for the issues unique to their experiences.  This team talks regularly over the course of the week and meets for upwards of 90 minutes prior to open court, during which they discuss in detail the challenges, successes, and setbacks experienced by the program participants.  It was impressive to see how well they understand and care about the individual issues faced by each participant and how devoted they were to coming up with the most appropriate and effective solutions.

While the investment in personnel time and services are high, the results are remarkable.  Graduates of Judge Hogan Sullivan’s Veterans’ Treatment Court have a recidivism rate of about 11.5%, while the average rate in Massachusetts is between 40 and 50 percent.  In its nearly 4 years of operation, only two people have picked up new charges since graduating, and while a handful more have relapsed with drug addiction issues, they have sought the help they needed before turning to the criminal behavior that put them in the justice system in the first place.

Yet, despite the tremendous devotion of the staff and hard work of the veterans involved, the court is held together on a shoestring budget.  They struggle to reach veterans who have lost their drivers’ licenses due to their criminal sanctions and have trouble accessing public transportation to the court or treatment services because there is no funding to assist them.  There isn’t even enough money to be able to provide graduates with certificates or awards at the end of their grueling period in the program.  Judge Hogan Sullivan recognizes the importance of being able to offer participants carrots in addition to the stick of stepped up sanctions and so purchases a supply of business cards saying simply “Congratulations, you did exactly what we asked of you” which she gives out exceedingly sparingly to assure they carry special sentimental weight.

In all, our day at Veterans’ Treatment Court was eye-opening and moving.  We applaud the remarkable work being done by Judge Hogan Sullivan and her team in Dedham.  Stay tuned next week to hear about our visit to Bridges, Judge David Weingarten’s Mental Health Session in Roxbury District Court.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Final FY17 Budget Update

On July 31, the legislative session came to a close, complete with a few overrides, by way of a two-thirds vote in each branch, of Governor Charlie Baker’s line-item vetoes to the budget that legislators had sent him (H4450).

In signing the budget on July 8, amid news that the Commonwealth could be facing as much as a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, the Governor exercised his authority to target many legislative appropriations for cuts amounting to $256 million.  The below numbers reflect the final state for the FY17 budget, after the Legislature reversed a number of those cuts, one by one, in the final days of session.

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

  • Request: $27,000,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000
  • House Final Budget: $18,500,000 ($500,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $17,000,000
  • Senate Final: $18,000,000 ($1,000,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Conference Committee Final: $18,000,000
  • Governor Final: $18,000,000
  • FY17 Final: $18,000,000

We are thrilled that the FY17 budget included an extra $1 million over last year’s figure in funding for legal services—a top BBA priority—and grateful to the Governor for not only sparing the MLAC line-item from his veto pen but also highlighting this increase in his budget message.  Given the extremely challenging budget situation, this increase is truly remarkable and demonstrates a clear commitment from both legislators and the Governor to assist those in need of civil legal aid.  It also continues to show the message of our BBA Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts—that MLAC funding produces a positive return on investment by preventing “back-end” costs—has gotten through.

Trial Court

  • Request: $654,374,856 + Modules for additional initiatives
  • Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • House Final Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $643,484,303
  • Senate Final Budget: $643,484,303
  • Conference Committee Final: $639,762,683
  • Governor Final: $632,969,055
  • FY17 Final: $638,940,097

It is unfortunate that this final number was not higher, but we nevertheless greatly appreciate that the Legislature showed its strong support for the judicial branch by overriding the Governor’s vetoes on eight of sixteen Trial Court line-items, restoring roughly $6 million of the $6.8 million in cuts.  Failure to do so would have placed the courts in an alarming position, so we are grateful to legislators for making this a priority during the end-of-session crush of business and despite tough fiscal constraints.  We also note that the Legislature overrode vetoes for two of the four line-items funding the Supreme Judicial Court, restoring over $100,000 in funding for the Commonwealth’s highest court.

The next few years will be very important for court funding in order for the courts to continue to provide the highest level of justice for the people of Massachusetts.  Continued underfunding of the courts would exacerbate a number of challenges, from aggravating long-standing infrastructure problems (many court houses need significant repairs and updates as well as security updates) to stifling innovations such as the Specialty Courts program, which addresses the issues underlying criminal behavior and produces great outcomes by reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion

  • Request: $2,400,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $0
  • House Final Budget: $0
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $1,194,614
  • Senate Final Budget: $1,194,614
  • Conference Committee Final: $0
  • Governor Final: $0
  • FY17 Final: $0

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court has statutory jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases that involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing, as well as code enforcement cases. One of its greatest strengths is that its judges are experienced in these issues and best able to address the complexities and nuances of each case.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget proposal included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and operational for the last 6 months of FY17, but the House did not follow his lead, leaving this measure out of its budget entirely.  The Senate provided similar language and funding to the Governor’s proposal, but disappointingly, the Conference Committee did not include it.  So we will back making the case for Housing Court expansion in the new session, starting next January.  We look forward to the FY18 budget process and, as always, urge you to help us make your voice heard at the State House.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Taking on Tough Issues: Chief Justice Gants on the Judiciary

gants croppedWe recently had the pleasure of welcoming the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Ralph D. Gants, to our building.  He addressed members of our Council, speaking on a myriad of issues currently facing the court system and the state at large.  We’ve got the recap below, but we also invite you attend the upcoming Haskell Cohn Award ceremony, at which we will be honoring the Chief for his distinguished judicial service.

Known for going out into the community to teach people about the Massachusetts courts and the practical role that they play in our lives, Chief Justice Gants has long demonstrated that he cares deeply about ensuring that the justice system works for everyone. He has actively worked to leverage limited resources wisely and to inspire the commitment of new resources to promote that goal.

Since his appointment to the bench as a Superior Court Judge in 1997, Chief Justice Gants has earned a reputation for scrupulous analytic rigor, intellectual honesty and fairness. Prior to his elevation to the SJC in 2009, he was a strong leader of the Business Litigation Session. Throughout his judicial career, and especially since his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 2014, he has consistently shown a laser like ability to focus on the core issues in even the most complex of cases. He neither shies away from nor glosses over the most difficult issues, but rather grapples with them openly.  This includes access to justice and pro bono legal service – Chief Justice Gants is a former Chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and member of the SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.  In 2012, the BBA recognized him with the Citation of Judicial Excellence.

Here are some of the issues he addressed in his speech:

State Budget

Chief Justice Gants began with some news on the budget.  He analogized the budget process to a baseball game, stating that we were in the later innings and had scored some runs, but still had some more innings to go and work to do to convince legislators of the judiciary’s funding needs.  He acknowledged how challenging the budget situation is; even though the state economy appears healthy by many indicators, most revenue gains are already spoken-for due to constant growth in certain key areas such as health care.

As it currently stands, the Governor, House, and Senate have all released their budget proposals.  A conference committee will shortly be addressing differences between the House and Senate proposals.  Here is a brief breakdown of the line items we are most interested in:

  • Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC – funding for civil legal aid)
    • House: $18,500,000
    • Senate: $18,000,000
  • Trial Court
    • House: $639,900,000 (includes Specialty Courts module)
    • Senate: $643,484,303 (does not include Specialty Courts module)
  • Statewide Housing Court Expansion
    • House: $0
    • Senate: $1,194,614

Click here for a full analysis of all our budget priorities.

Justice System Reforms

Civil

Chief Justice Gants then discussed reforms currently under consideration for both civil and criminal practice.  Following his lead on the need for  a “menu of options” in civil litigation, each department of the Trial Court (aside from the Juvenile Court), examined their civil practices, and most are in the process of finalizing streamlining proposals that will give lawyers more practice options.  However, the Chief Justice stressed, giving lawyers more choices matters only if lawyers actually take advantage of them.  He encouraged lawyers to try out the new options when they are implemented and hoped that practitioners would be pleased with the outcomes – fair and fast resolutions of their cases on the micro level, and a more efficient court system on the whole as a result.

Once this is accomplished, it may lead to larger systemic changes.  For example, the Trial Court is examining increasing the minimum procedural amount to qualify for Superior Court from $25,000 to $50,000.  This change would approximately represent an adjustment for inflation (the amount has stayed the same since 1986), but would also result in shifting a large number of cases from the Superior Court to the District Court level.  Implementation of this change is currently on hold, at least until devoted civil sessions in the District Courts are operating at peak efficiency.

Criminal

On the criminal front, the Chief Justice spoke highly of the work of the Council of State Governments, which is examining criminal justice policy in Massachusetts at the joint request—and with the guidance—of  the Chief Justice, the Governor, the Senate President, and the Speaker of the House.   The Council will be making recommendations for criminal justice reforms in the Commonwealth in the coming months.

Chief Justice Gants has already taken the lead on this issue in the judiciary, installing best practices for sentencing in all criminal courts.  He explained that going forward, the judiciary is looking more closely at issues such as sentence length and post-release conditions (currently about 40% of people are released from prison without any form of supervision), as well as tailoring sentences individually for each defendant.  The court is also focused on monetary issues, such as determining individuals’ ability to pay court fees and increasing the baseline amount for certain crimes, such as larceny, to qualify as a felony.

Access to Justice

Finally, Chief Justice Gants addressed his work with the Conference of Chief Justices, which recently adopted a resolution as part of a national effort to achieve “100% access to justice.”  While that phrase can mean many things, Chief Justice Gants is focused on maximizing both legal and non-legal resources so litigants can get the help they need, from self-help forms, to brief advice, to full representation from a lawyer, depending on the individual’s abilities and the complexity of their issue(s).  The biggest current challenge is figuring out how to allocate resources to achieve the most effective “triage.”  Other states are working to address the same questions, and he hopes we can benefit from some of their research and innovations.  Meanwhile, Massachusetts remains a leader in access to justice – as recognized by the National Center for Access to Justice’s recently-released 2016 Justice Index, which ranks us second only to the District of Columbia – and continues to expand empowering programs and initiatives, such as opening more Court Service Centers in courts across the state.

As always, the Chief Justice demonstrated his deep knowledge of the courts and justice system at large as well as his energetic push for meaningful and beneficial reforms to assure efficient practice and access to justice for all.  We are extremely pleased to be honoring him at next week’s Haskell Cohn ceremony and hope that you will join us in recognizing his remarkable and ever-increasing achievements.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Law Day Dinner: Celebrating and Discussing Innovation

We hope you were able to join us last week for our annual Law Day Dinner.  Much was written in this space about the honoring of Specialty Courts, and we were thrilled to be able to promote the remarkable work of the judges running these sessions and the positive outcomes they are able to achieve for individuals suffering from some of the most pressing challenges facing society today such as substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health and veterans issues.  Ten Specialty Court judges accepted the President’s Award on behalf of the full Specialty Court system as more than 1,000 attorneys looked on.

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We also honored Professor Daniel Nagin with the John G. Brooks Legal Services Award, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford with the President’s Award, and Jack Regan with the Thurgood Marshall Award.

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Professor Nagin is the Vice Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education and serves as the Faculty Director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center & Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School. The John G. Brooks Legal Services Award was established to recognize professional legal services attorneys for their outstanding work on behalf of indigent clients in greater Boston, and Prof. Nagin’s work has embodied the spirit of the award, on both the local and national level.

In 2012, Prof. Nagin founded the Veterans Legal Clinic, where students gain hands-on experience while representing veterans and the families of veterans who would not have access to legal representation otherwise. Prof. Nagin has also written articles and sat on panels discussing legal issues of particular concern to veterans, including access to benefits.  Most recently, Prof. Nagin started the Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC) at the Legal Services Center, supported in part by the Boston Bar Foundation.

Prof. Nagin has been an active member and currently co-chairs the BBA’s Active Duty Military, Family Members & Veterans Committee. He has also planned a number of pro bono trainings to assist veterans with discharge appeals and to support the pro bono panel of the new LITC.

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The BBA honored SJC Justice Margot Botsford with the President’s Award for her many contributions to the judiciary and legal profession over the course of nearly three decades on the bench.  She was appointed to the Superior Court in 1989 and the Supreme Judicial Court in 2007.  She has a long history of involvement with various court working groups and committees to effectuate changes and innovations for legal practice, increasing access to justice, and educating judges on best practices.

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We presented the Thurgood Marshall Award to Jack Regan of WilmerHale for his work to improve access to justice for veterans and other vulnerable populations. The Thurgood Marshall award was established to recognize attorneys in private practice in greater Boston whose extraordinary efforts have enhanced the human dignity of others through improving or delivering civil or criminal legal services to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s low-income population. Mr. Regan has been practicing for nearly four decades, and during that time, he has shown a deep commitment to delivering pro bono services to veterans, active duty military personnel, and their families.

During his term as BBA President, Mr. Regan created the Task Force on Legal Services for Military Personnel, Veterans and their Families. The task force oversaw the creation of BBA’s Military & Veterans Committee, which founded the Military and Veterans Legal Helpline, now housed at the Boston Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service, with assistance from the Legal Services Center and Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the BBA, Veterans Legal Services, and the Legal Advocacy Resource Center. Mr. Regan also co-chairs WilmerHale’s Pro Bono and Community Service Committee, which oversees the firm’s extensive pro bono and community service programs, as well as its relationship with the Legal Services Center at Harvard.

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Following these awards was no small task, but keynote speaker Rebecca Love Kourlis was more than prepared.  A former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, Kourlis now serves as Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) at the University of Denver.  In the last ten years, IAALS has become a widely-recognized, national, independent research center working on solutions to some of the most important issues facing the legal profession.  A consortium of 33 law schools around the country, including Boston College Law School, Northeastern University School of Law, and Suffolk University Law School, have joined IAALS in an ongoing discussion about the best ways to prepare lawyers to serve clients in the real world.

Kourlis’s speech focused on “Laying the Foundations for Tomorrow’s Lawyers” and was presented in three parts – recognizing a problem, finding a solution, and identifying the role lawyers can play in affecting change.  She explained that law schools are facing many challenges.  Law firms claim to want lawyers with more practical skills, but at the same time, prospective students are taken-aback by the high costs of law school and are interested in reducing its three year length.  Meanwhile starting salaries are flat and hiring at the largest firms has decreased, while the cost of legal education continues to climb, resulting in a drop of 29.4% in law school enrollment since 2010.

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IAALS (described by Kourlis as a “think-DO tank”) assessed this status quo and decided they had to rethink the foundations of practice.  Their “Foundations” project has three objectives:

  1. Identify the Foundations that entry-level lawyers need;
  2. Develop measurable models of legal education that support those Foundations; and
  3. Align market needs with hiring practices to incentivize positive improvement.

IAALS recently completed the first phase, which included a 37 state survey (including data from all 50 states) with over 24,000 responses.  The survey listed individual characteristics, competencies and skills on a continuum of when they are most important to a lawyer – from right out of law school to being development over time.

The survey revealed that lawyers are most interested in hiring individuals possessing strong upstanding character.  When asked to select experiences and accomplishments that suggest job candidates have the right foundations, respondents ranked experience over traditional accomplishments, such as law school attended, class rank, and participation on law review. The best way to build on these characteristics may be through experiential education such as externships, clinics, and clerkships which yield life experience rather than simply classroom knowledge.

Kourlis went on to explain that the challenge going forward is to resolve the apparent disconnect between these results, the market’s hiring practices, and law school’s preparation of students.  According to the survey, the market is identifying that it wants students with character, but according to hiring statistics, they may not be hiring it, and law schools may not be sufficiently producing it.  That brings up steps 2 and 3 of the Foundations project and IAALS is hard at work on turning its research into outcomes.  In the meantime, Kourlis left our audience with some homework, telling them that they play a role and possess more power than they think.  She encouraged lawyers to help law students and recent graduates to create a bridge to practice through programs such as residencies and mentoring, by offering their assistance to law schools, and to think hard about hiring practices because law schools take note.  If firms hire from law schools that are innovating and providing the character-building experiential education that is most valuable in producing successful lawyers, they can achieve change.

In all, the Law Day Dinner was a great event and we thank you for attending (want to relive it?  Check out our photo album here).  We hope you can join us next year for another thought provoking discussion!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Focused on the Budget – BBA Update

In addition to yesterday’s budget member alert, we have been busy with advocacy of our own.  At the same time we asked you to contact your Representatives, we sent a letter to Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, explaining the need for adequate funding for the three issues described above.  We have also been meeting with state and national leaders to discuss our budget priorities.

State Representative Meetings

Earlier this week, former BBA President and Chair of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, J.D. Smeallie, met with Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad’s office and Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing.  More meetings are scheduled in the coming weeks.  Smeallie has spent the last 18 months educating legislators on the findings of the Task Force’s Investing in Justice Report and is devoted to raising awareness of the need for increased legal aid funding.  Through surveys of civil legal aid agencies, the Task Force found that 64% of those eligible for legal aid, at 125% of the federal poverty level, are turned away annually due to lack of resources.  This lack of resources is due in-part to the nearly $30 million decrease in IOLTA funding over the last decade due to fewer deals and plummeting interest rates (more on this below).

This drop in funding caused legal aid organizations to lay-off attorneys and support staff, resulting in an increased number of pro se litigants navigating the courts.  Unrepresented litigants cause delays, take up the time and efforts of judges and court staff, and often struggle to access justice, as demonstrated in a survey of judges conducted by the Task Force.  Finally, the Report demonstrates that investment in civil legal aid yields positive returns, helping the state to save on back end costs such as shelter, police, and medical expenses, as well as bring money into the state through federal benefits.  The Report demonstrate that every $1 invested in civil legal aid serving evictions, domestic violence, and federal benefits, yields $2-$5 dollars in returns to the state.

Congressional Delegation Meetings

At the same time, BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey, Vice President Mark Smith, and Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs, Mike Avitzur, have spent the last two days in Washington, DC, at ABA Day with their counterparts from the MBA.

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From Left to Right: MBA President Bob Harnais, MBA President-Elect Jeffrey Catalano, Senator Elizabeth Warren, BBA President-Elect Carol Starkey, BBA Vice President Mark Smith

In addition to discussing mass incarceration issues and opposition to accrual accounting for law firms, our delegation is advocating for increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the federally funded non-profit corporation the promotes equal access to justice and provide grants for high-quality civil legal assistance for low-income Americans.  LSC provided four legal aid programs in Massachusetts with just over $5 million in FY2016.  In recent years, similar funding has yielded roughly 11,000 to 13,000 cases closed annually.  Stay tuned for a longer write-up on our ABA Day meetings on this blog next week.

Council Meeting

On Tuesday, we heard from MAIOLTA Director Jayne Tyrrell who spoke to the BBA Council about ways lawyers and law firms can maximize their IOLTA contributions, which in turn benefit civil legal aid organizations.  As noted above, IOLTA is one of the largest funders of civil legal aid, but due to historically low interest rates, its funding amounts have decreased dramatically.  While federal interest rates remain low, banks vary in their individual offerings, thus it matters where lawyers and law firms do their banking.  In Massachusetts, more than 40 banks have signed-on as Leadership Banks, agreeing to pay a minimum of 1% interest on IOLTA accounts.  Here is the full list.  Tyrrell encouraged all lawyers and law firms to consider banking with one of the listed banks for the benefits their interest rates will provide for civil legal aid.

At the same meeting, we heard from Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, Lon Povich.  He spoke on the budget as well, noting that both the Governor’s proposed budget and the budget issued by the House Ways & Means Committee contain no new taxes or fees.  The Governor’s FY17 budget proposal contained a 1% increase for civil legal aid and the courts, in addition to $1 million and enacting language for statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  While the House Ways & Means budget proposal included slightly larger increases for the Trial Court and MLAC, it did not include language or funding for Housing Court expansion.

Povich also discussed the work of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review undertaken by the Council of State Governments, and under the sponsorship of the Governor, Chief Justice of the SJC, Senate President and Speaker of the House, as well as the process  to fill vacancies on the SJC and other courts.  Both are still ongoing and we look forward to their forthcoming results.

The budget process continues through June, and we will continue to advocate for adequate funding for our priority issues and hope that you will as well – starting with contacting your Representative as explained above.  We will keep you updated on how the budget progresses and will likely be reaching out at other key points to request your help again.  Thank you in advance!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Funding Justice: BBA FY17 Budget Advocacy

On Wednesday, the Legislature took the second major step in the FY2017 budget process, releasing the House Ways and Means budget recommendation, roughly 2.5 months after the January 27 release of the Governor’s budget recommendation.  The BBA has been advocating for adequate funding for the judiciary through the Trial Court line items, civil legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line-item, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  We sent a letter to Brian Dempsey, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee detailing the funding needs in these areas.

Here is where things currently stand as to each of these BBA budget priorities:

MLAC

Funding for civil legal services has never been more crucial, in large part because legal aid helps address many of the most pressing social issues facing the Commonwealth today.  Every day, legal aid helps prevent unjust foreclosures and evictions, protect victims of domestic violence, and assure access to essential care and services, including life-saving treatments to combat addiction.  And that is only a small piece of what they do.  They provide advice and representation in many and diverse legal areas, including helping set up small businesses and organizing mentoring nonprofits.

However, because of their outstanding reputation and the overwhelming need for legal aid, MLAC agencies had to turn down 64% of the qualified clients seeking their services in 2013 according to the findings of the BBA’s Investing in Justice Task Force Report.  And that was only the people who actually got through the long wait times to have their issues considered.  As a result, the courts have to bear the weight of pro se litigants who often do not understand court procedures, bogging down the justice system and creating added work for already overburdened judges and court staff.  Most importantly, it also often leads to an unjust outcome, particularly where one side has representation and the other does not.  In a recent survey of judges, more than 60% responded that the influx of pro se litigants hindered the fair administration of justice.

Here is a breakdown of MLAC funding:

FY16 Final Budget Amount $17,000,000
FY17 MLAC Request $27,000,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget $17,170,000
FY17 House Ways & Means $18,000,000
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Representative Ruth Balser will be filing an amendment requesting an additional $9 million in MLAC funding.  We hope that you will call your Representative or email them directly and ask them to support her amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here), not only for the great work legal services agencies provide, but also because they can essentially pay for themselves.  Investing in Justice demonstrates that in the areas of evictions, domestic violence, and federal benefits every dollar invested in legal aid returns $2 to $5 to the state.  Be sure to thank them for the House’s generous $2 million funding increase last year!  Legal aid is already putting that investment to good use, to handle an additional 1,230 cases, benefitting some 3,295 residents.  With $10 million more this year, they can expand their reach to more than 16,000 additional people.

Trial Court

The Trial Court is comprised of seven departments which handle nearly all of the cases in the Commonwealth and represent the main point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who have legal issues they need resolved.  Thus it is essential that courts are adequately funded.  The Trial Court provides an annual budget breakdown wherein it asks for a maintenance funding amount, which is what is required to continue providing current services, and a host of modules for the budget-makers to consider with additional funding.  This year’s maintenance budget request is around $654 million, and the nine modules range in price from $785,000 to $10 million.

In the budget, the Trial Court is represented by 15 line items.  It received a generous increase of nearly $20 million in last year’s budget, but the judiciary is still underfunded.  The courts have made great strides toward modernizing and enhancing efficiencies under the new management structure put in place by the Legislature, as evinced by their request for maintenance funding of only 6,520 staff positions, a 17% reduction in staffing levels since FY02.  Furthermore, in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased 43.3% overall, funding for the Trial Court, a major piece of the third co-equal branch of government, has increased by only 7.9%.

However, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding in order to continue improving.  For example, the installation of new technologies, which can ultimately save on staffing and overhead costs, requires large up-front investments.   In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of upgrades in the area of security systems, to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public — a $4.1 million module.  Furthermore, innovations such as the successful Specialty Courts, a $2.8 million module, increase access to justice for vulnerable populations, but need adequate staffing and funding to thrive and expand, so that all residents who can benefit from participation in the Specialty Courts have access to them.

As shown in the table below, the Governor’s budget included roughly a $7 million increase over last year’s funding level, but is still $17 million below the Trial Court’s maintenance funding needs.  Funding at this level would result in layoffs of approximately 300 Trial Court employees according to a statement from SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  The House Ways and Means budget matched that amount but also included the Specialty Courts module.

FY16 Final Budget Amount $631,500,000
FY17 Maintenance Budget Request $654,374,856
FY17 Governor’s Budget $638,606,000
FY17 House Ways & Means $639,900,000 (includes Specialty Courts module)
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Housing Court

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

Housing Court was first established in 1972 for the City of Boston.   Since then, it has gradually expanded through the advocacy work of local constituencies to its current makeup, consisting of five divisions covering approximately 80% of the state geographically – but only about two-thirds of the population.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws, and codes on housing.

Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

Finally, Housing Court is adept at serving pro se litigants and individuals facing evictions.  It is home to the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a counseling service designed to intervene in cases affecting individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities to help prevent homelessness, as well as volunteer lawyer-for-the-day and other self-help forums.

Despite all these benefits, nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a housing court.  Currently, there is no Housing Court for all of Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties, most of Norfolk County, and a large portion of Middlesex County.  These areas include cities such as Chelsea, Framingham, Malden, Cambridge, Medford, Somerville, Watertown, Woburn, and Waltham, which have some of the highest number of rental units.  As a result, any housing or code enforcement issues in these counties are heard in District Court, where judges may not have any special housing expertise and housing cases are simply a drop in the bucket of a high volume caseload.  One consequence we’ve heard is that municipalities not covered by the Housing Court sometimes don’t even bring code-enforcement actions to District Court, because they know the inevitable delays make it not worth the effort.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and start phasing it in to the areas not currently covered.  Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Budget did not, potentially stifling this much-needed measure.  As a result, Representative Chris Walsh will file an amendment on April 15 to include $1.2 million and the authorization for statewide housing court in the House budget.  We hope that you will call your Representative and ask them to support his amendment (Don’t know your legislator?  Look them up here).

Estimated Cost $2,400,000
FY17 Governor’s Budget $1,000,000 (to cover the first 6 months)
FY17 House Ways & Means $0
FY17 House Final House budget debate will take place during the week of 4/25
FY17 Senate Ways & Means

Forthcoming

FY17 Senate Final
FY17 Conference Committee
FY17 Final Budget Amount

 

Please keep an eye out for a budget alert next week.  We hope that you will take the time to contact your legislators and run through some talking points with them on why this funding is important.  Below are some quick bullet points for you to raise:

MLAC – Line Item 0321-1600

  • Seeking $10 million, for a total of $27 million. The House Ways & Means budget included a $1 million increase.  Representative Ruth Balser is filing an amendment to secure the additional $9 million.  Please support her amendment!
  • Provides civil legal aid for indigent individuals for essential life services such as eviction prevention and protection from domestic abuse
  • 64% of qualifying individuals are turned away annually – more than 54,000 individuals
  • Pro se litigants place a burden on the courts and struggle to access justice
  • Civil legal aid is a good investment, providing a positive return on investment by saving the state in areas such as shelter and medical costs.

Trial Court (15 Line Items)

  • Seeking $654 million, $17 million more than included in the House Ways & Means budget. If funding remains at the current proposed level, the Trial Court will have to lay off 300 essential staffers.
  • Despite being chronically underfunded — in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased by 43.3%, funding for the Trial Court has only increased by 7.9% — the courts have made great strides in efficiency. Today they operate at full capacity with 17% fewer employees than in FY02.
  • Lack of funding will stifle innovations and potentially endanger court users. As demonstrated by the module requests, the courts deserve increased funding for programs such as overhauling outdated security systems and expanding the groundbreaking Specialty Court sessions, which provide support and treatment for the issues underlying criminal behavior and have produced great results in reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion – Line Item 0036-0003

  • Requires $2.4 million to operate yearly, but could ramp up to full capacity with the $1 million proposed by the Governor. Unfortunately, the House Ways & Means budget includes no funding for this initiative.
  • Nearly two-thirds of residents are deprived of this resource. Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis with specialized judges, housing specialists who mediate cases to avoid costly trials, and the Tenancy Preservation Program, providing counseling and intervention for individuals with physical and mental disabilities to prevent homelessness.

Thank you for your help and we hope you will check in again as we continue to keep you updated no the latest budget developments.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Recovery with Justice: BBA President Visits Mental Health Court

BBA President Lisa Arrowood recently completed her tour of the state’s Specialty Courts with a visit to Mental Health Court.  Since the start of the new year, President Arrowood visited sessions of the Drug Court and Veterans’ Treatment Court , and more recently Homeless Court.  It was nice to see a familiar face, Judge Kathleen Coffey, who runs both the Homeless Court at Pine Street Inn and the Mental Health Court Session at the West Roxbury division of the Boston Municipal Court (BMC).

Mental Health Court began in Massachusetts nearly a decade ago – 2007 in the BMC and 2009 in District Court.  They represent a handful of the 250-or-so mental health courts nationally, which arose out of a recognition that an estimated 70 percent of men and women in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.

The Court is designed for individuals who are competent to stand trial, have disposed of their criminal cases by admission to sufficient facts or a guilty plea, and have been placed on pre-trial or post-disposition probation.  The sessions include a court-imposed condition of probation for defendants who have serious mental illness or co-occurring mental health and alcohol or substance abuse issues.  Working with a mental health clinician from the Boston Medical Center, the probation officer assigned to the Mental Health session identifies the particular mental health and social needs of each participant, and creates a service plan which includes referrals to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment when appropriate, as well as housing, educational and employment opportunities.


Mental Health Court participants are usually involved with the program from somewhere between three months and one year.  During that time, the Court monitors progress and compliance with the service plan through regular in-court reviews with the judge, mental health clinician, and probation officer.  In the last nine years, almost 70 people have graduated from these programs, and an additional 32 participants are currently being served.  National studies place recidivism rates for mental health courts in the high teens (17-20%), less than half of the rate for traditional courts.

These are the facts.  In reality, however, the program is far more than the description above.  First of all, Mental Health Court is a misnomer.  It is instead referred to in the courthouse and by all involved staff as the Recovery with Justice (RwJ) Program so as to avoid the negative stigmas that are still sometimes associated with mental health issues.  As Judge Coffey noted to President Arrowood, even drug addiction is less stigmatized than mental illness.  By calling the program RwJ, she hopes to encourage more individuals to participate and stick with the program.  The name is undeniably important: Consider the difference between telling an employer that you need to be late to work for your Recovery with Justice program session rather than Mental Health Court.

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Second, the session is largely focused on support and guidance.  Judge Kathleen Coffey takes the lead, and all the individuals involved have embraced their roles to find ways to solve problems for the people in the program.  Judge Coffey and clinicians follow-up on everything from counseling and drug treatment sessions to job training and sober programs.  When one RwJ participant told of a recent relapse, Judge Coffey recognized the slip-up but told the individual she was proud of the progress made since then, explaining that the Court was interested in providing options for success without overburdening the participants.  The words hit home, as the individual turned back after his time with the judge and explained to the courtroom, “See all the people who care about me?  It’s great.”
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As Judge Coffey explains, the key is PACE, and no, she doesn’t mean the speed of court proceedings.  In fact, speed is definitely not at issue as the judge and court personnel made sure to spend as much time as needed with every RwJ participant and explained each step they were taking along the way.  PACE stands for “Positive Attitude Changes Everything,” and is a mantra Judge Coffey has adopted for the RwJ  program.  While RwJ provides resources, it still requires the participants to put forth the effort, desire, and work towards the goals they want to achieve.  That all starts with attitude.

For example, one participant who was nearly finished with the program spoke to the judge about how he was now willing to take his medication because he recognized its benefits, wanted to grow-up and improve his life, and the court and clinicians worked with him to shift his dosage amount and schedule to help him avoid the sluggishness side effects during the day.  His reluctance and doubts were replaced with a willingness to try the clinicians’ recommendations and a drive to succeed at least in part because his concerns about the negative medication side effects were heard and addressed.

We are pleased to see that specialty courts are accessible nearly statewide, and that the Trial Court is committed to their expansion and continued improvement.  To help make that a reality, we are advocating in the legislature for more funding for the Trial Court.  The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget (representing what it would cost to merely continue the same level of services from last year) of $654 million.  The Governor’s budget allocated $637 million, which would result in the layoffs of roughly 300 Trial Court employees and have a major negative impact on its ability to deliver justice and ensure the safety of those in court.  Despite being the third co-equal branch of government, funding for the Trial Court has grown only 7.9% from FY08 to FY16, while the overall state budget has increased 43.3% in that same time period.  We urge lawmakers to decrease this gap.

The Court is also highlighting three budget “modules” that the Legislature could opt to fund, including $2.8 million for specialty courts, $4 million for security systems enhancements, and $1.2 million for statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  The specialty court module would fund seven additional court sessions including Court Clinicians from the Department of Mental Health, residential treatment from the Department of Public Health, Probation Officers, and certification and training for all involved.  The state stands to gain so much by investing such a small sum.

We look forward to keeping you updated on the budget process and funding for the judiciary.  We hope that you will get involved and keep an eye out for our legislative alerts in case we need you to raise your voices in support of this cause.  Unlike other causes, the trial court does not have natural advocates, so it is up to lawyers to raise awareness of the need to adequately fund this branch of government.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Racing in the Right Direction: BBA President attends Homeless Court

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From left to right: Chief Probation Officer Matthew McDonough, BBA President Lisa Arrowood, Homeless Court Judge Kathleen Coffey, Clerk Magistrate Sean Murphy, and Court Officer Christopher Lembo

On February 18, BBA President Lisa Arrowood attended a session of Homeless Court, her third specialty court visit in the past few weeks.  Last month, President Arrowood attended a Drug Court graduation with Judge Serge Georges and a Veterans’ Treatment Court graduation with Judge Eleanor Sinnott.  Both offered moving examples of what individuals can accomplish when the courts work hand-in-hand with treatment providers to offer support and oversight.  Specialty courts are problem-solving court sessions which provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues underlying criminal behavior.  Their goal is to reduce recidivism and increase the effectiveness of the court system by addressing root causes for criminal behaviors.

The original homeless court started in San Diego, California, in 1989, and similar models soon sprang up in major cities in Arizona, Louisiana, and Texas.  Massachusetts Homeless Court was established in 2011 as a partnership between the Boston Municipal Court’s West Roxbury division, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley (represented at the session President Arrowood attended by former BBA Council member and Criminal Law Section Co-Chair Christina Miller), the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and the Pine Street Inn.

The Inn is a nonprofit organization providing emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, job training and placement, and street outreach to more than 1,600 homeless men and women.  The special court session occurs monthly on the third Thursday at 11:00 am and is designed to resolve misdemeanor offenses, non-violent felonies, and outstanding warrants for homeless individuals, with support and dignity.  A number of participants in the session we attended were enrolled in programs at the Inn.

By removing default warrants and dismissing criminal cases, Homeless Court breaks down many of the barriers that prevent homeless individuals from securing permanent housing, employment, education, drivers’ licenses, and other government benefits, helping them to move on with their lives.  It is presided over by Judge Kathleen Coffey —  Chief Justice of the West Roxbury District Court, and Director of Specialty Courts for the BMC – who sits at a simple table under an abstract painting in a nondescript room at the Pine Street Inn, alongside a chief probation officer and a clerk-magistrate.  Participation is open to any homeless individual who meets the following criteria:

  • The client must have an outstanding warrant (for a missed court date or violation of probation) in Massachusetts.
  • The case must be a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony.
  • The client must be homeless or at risk of homelessness.
  • The client must be receiving services or working with a case manager.

The Court operates as a progressive plea bargaining system characterized by alternative sentencing.  While in traditional criminal justice procedures, the court requires the defendant to promise to change his or her behaviors while on probation, in the Homeless Court context, the individual must have already completed a substance abuse program or be actively participating in mental health treatment and job training.  Through Homeless Court, individuals are given the opportunity to work with social workers and case managers in cooperation and collaboration with the prosecutors and defenders’ offices to overcome challenges with the oversight of a judge.  As of last summer, 101 individuals had successfully completed the Court requirements.

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Judge Kathleen Coffey seated next to Clerk Magistrate Sean Murphy

In Judge Coffey’s words, Homeless Court, “is based upon the premise that there is room for treatment, compassion and for recovery within the court system.  It recognizes that homelessness presents a complicated challenge to the courts demanding alternative approaches in the administration of justice. The court seeks to make the justice system more accessible, accountable and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by this most vulnerable population.”

Throughout the session, at which seven cases were considered, Judge Coffey often expressed sympathy for the complicated problems faced by the defendants.  Five defendants were present at the session, and two saw their cases dismissed.  Judge Coffey asked everyone to share their stories – how they became homeless, their reasons for taking part in homeless court, and what aspect of life on the streets was most challenging.  Defendants described the difficult, and varied, life circumstances that led to their hitting rock-bottom and their motivations for self-improvement, which included the knowledge that they could do better, the need to escape the isolation and constant turmoil of homelessness, and, in several instances, a strong desire to make their young children proud.  Judge Coffey encouraged positive progress, telling one defendant they were “racing in the right direction,” and District Attorney Christina Miller did the same, telling another defendant that she was “amazed and encouraged” by their progress.

Boston Bar Association President Lisa Arrowood said she was inspired not only by the profound impact this program and the other specialty courts are having on the lives of its graduates, but also on their potential to meaningfully tackle complex issues that lead individuals to commit crimes.

“It is the first time for many of these people that they are in court and something good is happening to them.  I looked around and thought that this is what they need – treatment, not incarceration,” Arrowood said.  “I believe specialty courts are highly valuable and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to see them operate firsthand.”

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association