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Helping Civil Legal Aid Attorneys Identify and Respond to Elder Abuse
June 17, 2014 Posted by

This blog is courtesy of Meg Morrow, an attorney advisor for the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).  Ms. Morrow manages OVC’s efforts to respond to elder abuse.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) joins with other components within the Department of Justice to acknowledge the prevalence of elder abuse in the United States and to recognize promising advances in the field.  Having recognized World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, 2014, we can glean hope from the increase in awareness and recognition of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in this country while facing the challenges of the work that remains.

OVC believes that the more we educate victim service providers, criminal justice professionals and allied practitioners about victim issues, the better able those professionals are to serve victims who need those services.  In the area of elder abuse, OVC has worked diligently to develop training for the full range of professionals who interact with elders who may be victims of abuse, including victim service providers, physicians, nurses, law enforcement, adult protective services, aging services providers, judges and court personnel and community corrections professionals.

In that spirit, OVC teamed with the department’s Elder Justice Initiative and Access to Justice Initiative to develop an interactive, online curriculum for legal aid and other civil attorneys on identifying and responding to elder abuse.  As Deputy Attorney General James Cole said when he announced this collaboration, “Legal services programs have a unique opportunity to prevent and remedy elder abuse.”

Funded through the Elder Justice Initiative, this curriculum includes six one-hour modules that address a range of issues relevant to civil attorneys who serve older clients in the course of their practice.  This training has the basic information and tools attorneys can use to identify and address the needs of their older clients who may be experiencing some form of abuse.

This week, the Department released the first three modules of the curriculum: What Every Legal Services Lawyer Needs to Know About Elder Abuse; Practical and Ethical Strategies; and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.  The three remaining modules, Elder Abuse in Long-Term Care; Financial Exploitation; and Guardianship, Conservatorship and Surrogate Decision Making, are scheduled for release later in the summer.

Legal aid attorneys regularly work with older clients who are victims of elder abuse, but too often the attorneys do not recognize the warning signs of abuse or know where to turn for help.  With this curriculum, the department aims to ensure that these critical allied practitioners have the resources they need to identify the abuse and take action.

Later this summer, Access to Justice is issuing a case study, Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to Prevent and Remedy Elder Abuse, which will be made part of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit that Associate Attorney General Tony West recently announced at the April 8, 2014, White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice.  This case study will explain the unique role civil legal aid lawyers can play in helping to prevent and remedy elder abuse.

OVC will continue to work with our partners at the department to expand services that address the needs of elder abuse victims.

I encourage legal aid lawyers, other civil attorneys and any other professionals seeking to learn about the identification of elder abuse to access the new training modules to learn more about what they can do to address elder abuse.

To learn more information on OVC’s efforts to enhance the response to elder abuse victims, please visit the office’s website.

POSTED IN: Access to Justice  |  PERMALINK
Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder Announce New Efforts to Address the Needs of Confined Youth
June 9, 2014 Posted by

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This past March, staff from the Departments of Justice and Education met at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to hear from a group of seven formerly incarcerated youth. This amazing group – most of them now over the age of 18 – shared their experiences with the juvenile justice system. 

No two stories were the same.  Some youth shared that they received no educational services at all, not even books to read, during their time in the facility.  While several youth had been identified as having disabilities before they were incarcerated, many did not receive services aligned with their individualized education programs.  Among the students who did receive instruction, the courses available did not provide credits toward a high school diploma. 

We are grateful to these youth for their resilience, leadership, and bravery as they speak out about their experiences.  It is time that we match our gratitude with a new commitment to reform, to ensure that every child placed in a facility has access to high-quality education services and the supports they need to successfully reenter their schools and communities. 

Today, leaders from 22 agencies joined us for a Federal Interagency Reentry Council meeting to discuss actions to reduce reentry barriers to employment, health, housing and education for individuals who are transitioning from incarceration to community.  The meeting comes on the heels of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report, submitted to President Obama last week, which recommends new action to address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by too many youth, particularly boys and young men of color, and ensure that all young people who are willing to do the hard work to get ahead can reach their full potential , including new efforts to enforce the rights of incarcerated youth to a quality education. 

In keeping with that recommendation, we announced to our federal partners that we sent a letter to each state school superintendent and each state attorney general.  The letter highlights the importance of supporting youth in facilities, describes how federal dollars can fund improved services and signals our coming work to clarify the components of high-quality correctional education services.

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This step continues recent work by federal agencies to support incarcerated youth in juvenile justice facilities.  We’ve funded model demonstration projects for students with disabilities returning from juvenile facilities and commissioned a report from the National Academy of Sciences to better understand the developmental needs of incarcerated youth.  Moving forward, our departments will invest in a joint initiative to design an evidence-based education model for returning youth and to support demonstration projects in selected jurisdictions.    

Our work builds upon the recent groundswell of state and local efforts, as well as private initiatives and investments in research, dedicated to strengthening services for incarcerated youth.  Last year, we were amazed by the efforts at Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings Youth Development Center to provide all youth with access to English, Math, Social Studies and Science classes aligned with the standards of the District of Columbia’s public schools.  During our visit to the facility, students were reading Night, by Elie Wiesel. 

Maya Angelou Academy has set the bar higher for our youth in juvenile justice, and others are doing the same. 

States such as Oregon, Indiana and Pennsylvania are increasing access to technology as one strategy for connecting youth in juvenile facilities with academic content comparable to their peers in traditional schools. 

Thanks to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, we now have consensus among researchers, practitioners and advocates – from the fields of education, health, juvenile justice, and law enforcement – regarding the necessary steps to keep youth in school, prevent their entry into the justice system and ensure that youth in facilities get the supports and services they need. 

Plenty of work remains. Too many places still exist where youth in facilities do not have access to quality education services, or worse, receive no services at all. We know that there is often confusion among education and justice officials about who is responsible for students’ education once they are placed in a juvenile detention setting.  But we are heartened by the work of the Council of State Governments, the National Academy of Sciences, and others – an effort that represents growing national agreement that we have a collective responsibility to support, nurture and prepare juvenile justice-involved youth.   

That’s why we spoke up in a recent federal lawsuit in support of incarcerated youth with disabilities who alleged that they were placed in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more per day, discriminated against on the basis of their disability, and denied their right to a free and appropriate public education. 

As noted in the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force report, when young people come into contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems, these interactions should not put them off track for life.  The president has set a goal that, by 2020, our nation will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world and that all Americans complete at least one year or more of college or career training.  We must ensure that our youth in correctional facilities can play their part in achieving that vision.

 

Reframing Public Defense: Upcoming Webinar about Federal Funding Opportunities
May 20, 2014 Posted by

Upon assuming office, Attorney General Eric Holder set out to improve the indigent defense crisis in the country. In March of 2010, he established the Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) with the goal of improving the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford counsel in both the civil and criminal contexts. Throughout his tenure, the Attorney General has asked members of his Department to address this crisis in the work they do each day. For example, on June 19, 2010, he told an audience in Wilmington, North Carolina:

Let me assure you … that this is not a passing issue for the Justice Department. I have asked the entire Department to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need. As many of you know, we recently took an historic step to make access to justice a permanent part of the Department’s work, with a focused effort by our leadership offices to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves.

One area ATJ has focused on is increasing awareness among the defender community about existing funding sources. According to a report from the United States Government Accountability Office in May 2012, the Department of Justice administered 13 grant programs from fiscal years 2005 through 2010 that recipients could use to support indigent defense, 4 of which required recipients to use all or part of the funding for that purpose and 9 that did not. Among the 9 grants that did not require allocations for indigent defense, two-thirds or more of state, local, and tribal respondents reported that they did not use funds for it. And, approximately only 54 percent of grantees or public defender offices were even aware that such funding could be used to support indigent defense.

In an attempt to shrink this information gap, in 2013, ATJ, in partnership with the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), co-hosted three webinars about federal grants available to defenders: Strengthening Indigent Defense: Understanding State and Federal Resources; Expanding Stakeholder Involvement: Promoting Inclusive System Planning; and Strengthening Court Systems: Understanding State and Federal Resources. These introductory webinars sought to raise awareness about these grants and to provide viable strategies to ultimately become defender grantees.

The webinars particularly spotlighted the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) program, administered by the Office of Justice Program’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). With an average of $370 million in appropriations, it is the largest of the Justice Department’s grant programs and is considered the cornerstone of federal support for state and local criminal justice systems. Defenders, however, have not consistently been a part of state and local planning processes for allocating Byrne JAG funds, and funds dedicated to indigent defense constitute only about 3 percent of all criminal justice expenditures in our nation’s largest localities.

This low percentage may be the result of a variety of factors but the defender information gap and lack of involvement of the defender community in the state planning process are chief among them. Not surprisingly, the GAO report found that Byrne JAG funding is more likely to be shared with a broader range of stakeholders if they are included in the planning process. “Specifically, among the 4 percent of JAG grantees who reported that representatives of the indigent defense community were involved in the decision making process, 22 percent reported allocating funding for indigent defense. In contrast, among the 52 percent who reported that representatives of the indigent defense community were not involved in the decision making process, 2 percent reported allocating funding for indigent defense.” 

In an effort to engage indigent defense stakeholders in the planning process, BJA added language to the grant solicitation, that its “recommended guidelines are that at a minimum, the strategic planning process includes law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, indigent defense providers, victim advocates, and corrections officials.” The grant solicitation also notes that a “key priority area [for State Administering Agencies to consider when trying to maximize the effectiveness of their funding] is support for indigent defense.”

To further this positive momentum, on May 15, 2014, ATJ once again teamed up with NCJA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association to host a fourth webinar, that provided a deeper dive into funding strategies for defenders. The webinar, Reframing Public Defense, featured an excellent panel, including Edward C. Monahan, Public Advocate, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, and Jeff Adachi, Public Defender, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who described the work of their offices and the collaborations they have entered into to enhance their competitiveness for local, state, foundation, and federal resources. The webinar is currently available on the NCJA website.

POSTED IN: Access to Justice  |  PERMALINK
Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit Launches at White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice
April 22, 2014 Posted by

What does civil legal aid have to do with preventing homelessness among veterans and securing a job?  And what does the Federal Government have to do with civil legal aid?  Often times, a lot.  

Andy’s” 10-year-old felony conviction prevented him from pursuing his hopes of securing a state license to become a New York Licensed Practical Nurse.  The Fortune Society, a grantee of U.S. Department of Labor’s Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Program, referred Andy to MFY Legal Services in New York.  His legal aid lawyer helped Andy obtain out-of state criminal court records, gather proof of rehabilitation and represented him at the initial investigative interview.  The result was a successful license application and a job. 

Thanks to Supportive Services for Veterans Families program funding, the LSC-supported Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles helped “Jake,” a veteran experiencing homelessness who had spent many months moving from shelter to shelter, apply for VA benefits.  The VA granted his request for a pension and provided him with medical care and a housing subsidy.  Now Jake lives in a duplex and has reunited with his son. 

These are just two case studies showing why, in July 2012, the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) and the U.S. Department of Justice launched the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR or Roundtable) to raise awareness about how civil legal aid helps advance a wide range of federal objectives by promoting access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being.  Associate Attorney General Tony West and Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council Tonya Robinson are co-chairs for LAIR, which is made up of 17 collaborating federal partners.  

Staffed by the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ), an office Attorney General Eric Holder launched four years ago to help spearhead national efforts to expand access to civil legal aid and criminal indigent defense, ATJ launched a new LAIR Toolkit at the April 8, 2014, White House and Legal Services Corporation Forum on Increasing Access to Justice. 

As explained in the Welcome Message from Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz, “[t]he Roundtable’s work is premised on the recognition that applying the power of legal services to meet federal objectives creates more opportunities for Americans to grab the next rung on the ladder out of poverty… In short, legal services can transform lives for the better, and there is a role for the Federal Government to play in helping to ensure access to these critical services.”  

The online resource guide contains useful information about civil legal aid and the intersection with many federal objectives.  Associate Attorney General West told the White House event attendees, “You’ll see a series of what we call ‘case studies’ on how civil legal aid supports federal efforts—for example, to help people stay housed, prevent domestic violence, and keep kids in school.  The wealth of information you’ll find at the Federal Agency Resources tab includes a listing by agency of selected grants and program activities for which civil legal aid providers are an eligible grantee, sub-grantee or partner, along with other examples of federal government activities that engage civil legal aid.” 

ATJ will continue to post case studies on new topics throughout the year, along with updates to the Federal Agency Resources page.  Some of the case studies already in queue include how Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to help prevent elder abuse and consumer fraud, and how it helps people with disabilities, children and families, immigrants, Native Americans, and victims of disaster.  Ideas about the new LAIR Toolkit content can be shared with the Access to Justice Initiative staff by writing to LAIR@usdoj.gov.

Reentry and the Affordable Care Act
April 17, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Associate Attorney General Tony West

Earlier this month, at a conference hosted by the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and the journal Health Affairs, I had the opportunity to speak with a distinguished group of policymakers, researchers and health care and criminal justice professionals about the implications of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for those under correctional supervision.

The fact is that the Affordable Care Act holds the promise of expanding health care coverage to uninsured Americans, and potentially opens Medicaid enrollment to some 15 million low-income adults, including the millions of individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system, of whom upwards of 90 percent are uninsured.

This moment is an opportunity, uniquely positioned at the intersection of public health and public safety, to reform correctional health care, to improve the health of our communities and to enhance public safety.  It is an opportunity born of necessity, as leaders across the political spectrum seek ways to better align our criminal justice investments with outcomes that actually make us safer.

At the Department of Justice, we understand that public health and public safety often walk hand-in-hand; that the public policy investments we make yield the greatest returns when they reflect the importance of that connection; and that key to making our communities safer is reducing recidivism by improving reentry, which in turn means focusing on the physical and mental health of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

We know that the incarcerated population carries substantially higher rates of medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems than the general population.  Rates of communicable diseases are higher among inmates; an estimated 39 to 43 percent suffer from one or more chronic health conditions; and men and women in this population suffer three times the rate of mental illness and four times the rate of substance abuse problems as compared to the general public.

Fortunately, we have a path forward.

We know that health care coverage and access to adequate health services can decrease the risk of individuals becoming involved with the criminal justice system in the first place.  Moreover, when individuals do come into contact with the justice system, we can dramatically improve the odds for successful reentry if we address their health and mental health needs once they enter correctional facilities and ensure continuity of care once they leave.  The Affordable Care Act, primarily through its Medicaid expansion provisions and parity for mental health and substance abuse treatment, provides us with this unique opportunity to reduce recidivism while improving public health.  Access to these benefits can be a critical factor in the success or failure of incarcerated persons upon their release.

Much of the work being done by the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which is chaired by the Attorney General, focuses on reducing the collateral consequences of incarceration and increasing access to employment, treatment and civic participation.  With our Reentry Council partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, we are jointly supporting a three-year pilot project to test the efficacy of enrolling prison and jail inmates in Medicaid prior to release, and we’re tracking usage, employment and recidivism outcomes along the way.

At the Department of Justice, we will require halfway houses in the federal system—known as residential reentry centers (RRCs)—to offer standardized treatment to prisoners with mental health and substance abuse issues.  Once fully-implemented, these services will be available to the approximately 30,000 inmates who are released through halfway houses each year, helping to promote consistency and continuity of care between federal prisons and community-based facilities.

This month, our Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance released a new solicitation requesting proposals to help states and local jurisdictions maximize Medicaid and marketplace resources on behalf of justice-involved individuals.  We are looking for innovative ideas to aid in all aspects of health care planning, from diversion alternatives and intake screening at the front-end, to reentry programs at the back end.  We want to be able to provide in-depth assistance to select jurisdictions on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well as policy guidance for all states and localities.

Of course, we must do more.

We must make it standard practice to assess the health care needs of individuals as soon as they come into the criminal justice system, being thoughtful about our options and basing decisions on individual needs.

We should be willing to consider detention alternatives such as drug and mental health courts, and we should make health care enrollment part of the intake and discharge processes for all inmates.

We must develop partnerships between correctional facilities and community health programs to promote information exchange and ensure continuity of care.

And we must target our actions to those who need services the most.  The Affordable Care Act gives us the chance to provide those with the highest risks and the greatest needs access to quality health care in a way that promotes public health and safety while strengthening community and respecting individual dignity.

Promoting and Protecting Human Rights: The Department of Justice’s Commitment to Equality
March 14, 2014 Posted by

This week, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin is representing the Justice Department in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss Civil Rights law enforcement at the Presentation of the U.S.’ Fourth Periodic Report Concerning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  He gave the following remarks before the U.N. Human Rights Committee 

Thank you, Mary, and thank you to the Chair and members of the Committee.  My name is Roy Austin, and I serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.  I am honored to appear before this Committee.  I am joined today by my colleague, Bruce Swartz, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in our Criminal Division, who will be speaking to you later in the presentation. 

Since the founding of our country, in every generation, there have been Americans who sought and struggled to realize our Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice for all.  This past fall marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  As we as a country contemplate the progress we have made over the past 50 years, I am happy to take the floor to discuss our nation’s continuing efforts to advance the cause of equality and ensure that all Americans can live free from discrimination. 

Our aggressive enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws shows our commitment to meeting our international human rights obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

First and foremost, the right to vote is the bedrock of any democracy.  The Justice Department is committed to ensuring full participation in our democratic process through the aggressive and evenhanded enforcement of our voting rights laws.  In recent months, to protect the rights of minority voters, we, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, filed lawsuits against the states of Texas and North Carolina seeking to block the implementation of their highly restrictive voter identification laws.  These lawsuits evidence the department’s continuing commitment to ensuring that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination. 

Like the right to vote, equal access to educational opportunities is essential to ensuring a strong future for our democracy.  Education is the gateway to full participation in our society.  Almost 60 years ago, our Supreme Court recognized that equal access to public education is a basic right.  The Justice Department continues to vigorously enforce federal laws to expand opportunities for all students, protecting them from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, language, religion and disability. 

We strongly support diversity in our educational institutions.  Diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our diverse nation and to transcend the boundaries of race, language and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected.  This past summer, the Supreme Court preserved the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs. 

Equal opportunity also means that qualified borrowers deserve equal access to fair and responsible lending.  Since its creation in 2010, the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit has obtained more than $775 million in monetary relief for borrowers and communities impacted by discriminatory lending. 

For the infrastructure of our democracy to remain strong, we must ensure meaningful access to our courts.  The stakes are too high in the courtroom context for parties or witnesses to be excluded because of their national origin.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, state courts that receive Justice Department funds must provide people with limited English skills meaningful access to their programs and services, and we have recently worked with over 15 states to ensure this access. 

Through its Access to Justice Initiative, the department is working to help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair to all, irrespective of wealth and status.  In support of its mission to protect the Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel, the department successfully filed a statement of interest in 2013 in a class action lawsuit in Washington state.  Last December, the court issued an injunction that required the cities to hire a public defender supervisor to monitor and report on the delivery of indigent defense representation. 

Effective and accountable police departments are also a fundamental part of the infrastructure of democracy.  The vast majority of police departments in the United States work tirelessly to protect the civil and constitutional rights of the communities they serve.  But when systemic problems emerge, or officers abuse their power, the department uses its authority to implement meaningful reform and to hold specific individuals accountable under our criminal laws.  Over the last five years, the Civil Rights Division has obtained groundbreaking reform agreements with police departments to address issues including the excessive use of force; unlawful stops, searches or arrests; or policing that unlawfully discriminates against protected minority groups or women. 

Individuals confined in institutions are also often among the most vulnerable in our society.  For that reason, the Justice Department is continuing its work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.  Last month, a department investigation of Pennsylvania’s prisons found that the manner in which PDOC (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) uses long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness—many of whom also have intellectual disabilities—constitutes a violation of their rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The United States takes seriously the importance of addressing racial and ethnic disparities at all levels in the justice system, especially as it pertains to criminal sentencing.  We are working to modify our charging policies so that those who commit certain low-level, nonviolent federal offenses will receive sentences commensurate with their individual conduct—rather than be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. 

In addition, in our 2013 annual report to the Sentencing Commission, the United States called for reform of some mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, including sentences triggered by drug trafficking offenses.  In January 2014, the Commission voted to propose, for public comment, amendments that would include possible reductions to the sentencing guidelines levels for federal drug trafficking offenses.  These could have the effect of reducing eligible sentences by approximately 11 months. 

We are also making significant strides in our effort to reduce violence against women.  Under new provisions in the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, tribes and the federal government can better work together to address domestic violence against Native American women, who experience the highest rates of assault in the United States.  The Act has led to significant improvements at the local government level—where the majority of these crimes are prosecuted—by encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection, and increasing access to protection orders. 

The United States recognizes that the promotion of civil rights, equal opportunity and non-discrimination are fundamental to ensuring universal respect for human rights.  As these efforts make clear, the United States has made great strides, but we recognize that much work remains in our efforts to realize Dr. King’s dream of a country with equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

 
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