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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.

Naturalization Ceremony Blog Post – “Welcoming New Partners to our Bold Experiment”
April 16, 2014 Posted by

 

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This post is courtesy of Associate Attorney General Tony West.

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking to hundreds of new citizens at a naturalization ceremony held at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va.  It was an incredible experience — one that made me proud of our country’s well-earned reputation as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Gathered in one place were 700 individuals from over 100 different countries, represented by different flags, different cultures and different systems of government.  These 700 took an oath in unison and in one single moment they all became Americans. 

Of course, their individual journeys to this day were much more unique, complicated and hard fought than could ever be captured in a moment.  Some came from across the globe — from nations like Brazil, Russia, India, China, Ireland, Ghana and Afghanistan.  Others came from our neighbors – Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.  Some of them are business owners, doctors, teachers, artists and engineers.  And some are parents caring for America’s next generation.  

Some are new citizens like Corporal Jorge Luis Cuji Villacis, who came here from Ecuador when he was 11 years old, went to school and then joined the U.S. Marine Corps because he wanted to make his family proud, serve this country and become a better person. 

And what I found so inspiring about this ceremony is what it reaffirmed about this country.  We are a nation bound together not by a shared race, a single ethnicity or a state-sanctioned religious faith.  We ask neither that such traits be inherited nor left behind.  Instead, our country is defined by our founding principles: freedom, equality and democracy.  The idea that you are free to control your destiny and help shape the future of this nation, no matter where you came from, no matter who your ancestors are and no matter what you look like.  More than a place on the map, that spirit is what the United States of America represents and it’s what these new citizens embody. 

Becoming an American citizen and taking part in our shared story is a precious privilege that no one in that auditorium took for granted.  So as we welcome these new partners to our bold experiment in self-government, we must work to improve the inefficient immigration system that hampered them, and so many other talented immigrants, from starting their lives here.

We know that we can improve that system by strengthening our borders, streamlining legal immigration, holding employers accountable and creating a firm but fair path to earned citizenship for those immigrants who are already contributing to our economy and society in so many ways.  

That’s why we remain committed to working with Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reforms that will do justice to our immigration system and the hard working, talented individuals who come through that system seeking the privilege of becoming an American.

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.

Providing Language Access in the Courts: Working Together to Ensure Justice
March 11, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Deeana Jang, Chief of the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section in the Civil Rights Division.

Access to courts and administrative proceedings is critically important.    Whether cases involve child custody, domestic violence, eviction, foreclosure, wage claims or criminal prosecution, the stakes are too high for individuals to be effectively excluded from courtroom participation because of their English proficiency.  Limited English proficient (LEP) individuals should not lose custody of their children because of their English ability.  LEP victims of domestic abuse should not have to rely on family, friends or abusers to interpret in the courtroom, and LEP defendants should not be interpreted by prosecutors.  Regardless of English proficiency, individuals need to understand and have access to judicial proceedings and court operations.  We are all considered equal under the law, and ensuring equal treatment and access in the judicial system are priorities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

There are over 25 million people in the United States who are considered limited English proficient individuals, a population that has almost doubled since 1990.  Our justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and our constitutional right to due process.    Meaningful language access is not just necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our judicial system; it is required by law.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, entities that receive federal financial assistance cannot discriminate on the basis of national origin, and failing to provide language access in courts violates Title VI.

Recently, we were delighted to bring together key stakeholders in the justice system to discuss efforts to improve language access in the courts for LEP individuals and to address the work that remains.  At that event, we released our Language Access Planning and Technical Assistance Tool for Courts, designed to help courts prevent Title VI violations and ensure access to justice for all.  This tool allows court systems to self-assess how they are providing language services and how these services can be improved.  It is the product of the experience of our team at FCS and the thoughtful comments by numerous individuals and organizations, representing the bench, bar, advocates and others who reviewed a draft when it was made available for public comment.  We are grateful for their input and hope this tool will be used by court systems for years to come.

Associate Attorney General Tony West and Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels of the Civil Rights Division made clear in their remarks at the event that ensuring access to state courts for LEP individuals is a priority at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.

“While there are myriad challenges we face while trying to provide equal access to justice, we are focusing on one important component here today — the ability of LEP individuals to receive equal access to language services,” said Samuels.  “Our collective commitment to justice is what makes our system work, and all individuals should be able to participate meaningfully, from the time they walk into the courthouse to the time they leave it.”

To ensure that no LEP individual is denied justice due to a court’s failure to provide language services, the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section’s (FCS) Courts Team provides policy guidance and technical assistance to state court systems and undertakes enforcement actions across the country.  Previous blogs have highlighted this work, for example, in Rhode Island and Colorado.  Most recently, the department resolved a complaint with the King County Superior Court in Washington, and the North Carolina Court System has committed to provide full free interpreter coverage for LEP litigants as a result of an FCS investigation.

But we know that we cannot make meaningful language access a reality without the work of other committed stakeholders, including the courts, bar, advocates and access to justice communities.  The event was an illustration of this shared commitment, and featured Vanessa Ruiz, Senior Judge on the DC Court of Appeals; Lisa Wood, Chair, American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants; and Harry Spence, the Court Administrator for the Massachusetts Trial Court.  Panelists discussed the DOJ tool, the American Bar Association 2012 Standards for Language Access in Courts and promising practices in Massachusetts.  We were also pleased to have staff from the National Center for State Courts at this event to share information on their Call to Action.  The National Center on Access to Justice also highlighted their new Justice Index, a tool that provides a snapshot of state rankings in several key access to justice areas.  We were joined by staff from the Access to Justice Initiative who underscored the connection between access to justice and language assistance services in courts and administrative proceedings.

The department has taken similar measures with other recipients of federal funding, such as jails, juvenile justice facilities and law enforcement agencies.  As a result, many recipients have created language access rules and plans.  For instance, the New York Governor’s Office required language access plans, and in Washington, D.C., the Office of Human Rights oversees and enforces the D.C. Language Access Act of 2004.  We have also worked with our partners across the federal government to ensure that all federal agencies are living up to their commitment to provide meaningful access to their services to LEP individuals and their beneficiaries.

A video of the event will be available on the state courts resources page of the LEP website.  The resource list from the event is available here.  Many thanks to Christine Stoneman, Michael Mulé, Andrea Plewes and the rest of the FCS staff, contractors and interns for making this happen.

For further information about FCS’s work, please visit the website and read our Title VI Four Year Report.  For additional LEP-related resources, please go to www.LEP.gov.

The Department of Justice Recognizes National Consumer Protection Week
March 7, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division

Those who violate consumer protection laws can cause devastating harm, often hitting our most vulnerable consumers the hardest. Victims of fraud, misrepresentation, and unsafe drug manufacturing and food production practices can lose significant amounts of hard-earned and much-needed money. But they also face a loss of trust in the marketplace, a loss of confidence in products we need like medicine or food, and a loss of security when we fall victim to a scam. That is why it is critical to expose these insidious practices and hold perpetrators accountable. Or as President Obama said in his proclamation of National Consumer Protection Week: “[O]ur Nation’s economy is only as strong as its people, and we recommit to fostering a sense of basic fairness in our marketplace.”

For that reason, I am particularly proud of the work the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch, a part of the Civil Division, is doing to enforce federal consumer protection laws and protect our communities. We employ all of the tools at our disposal—administrative, civil, and criminal—to protect consumers from the misdeeds that cause harm. But we also know this is a team effort. So, we collaborate with other federal agencies and state partners—sharing information, data and investigative practices where we can–and we engage in vibrant collaboration with the consumer advocacy community.

Without effective enforcement, those who prey on consumers will feel free to continue. So, we are fighting fraud and misrepresentation wherever they may lurk, recognizing that violations of the federal consumer protection laws come in all shapes and sizes. We continue to bring consumer cases involving financial fraud, including mortgage fraud, lottery scams, abusive and deceptive debt collection practices, and business-opportunity schemes. We are also pursuing new forms of telemarketing fraud, and immigration services fraud. We enforce laws against products that are unsafe for children – such as toys made with toxic materials. And we continue to investigate the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and violations of the rules for manufacturing and marketing of drugs, medical devices, and food.

The following are recent examples of the range of cases we bring to protect our most vulnerable consumers:

We prosecuted two Miami residents who owned and operated companies that targeted Spanish-speaking consumers with a fraudulent telemarketing scheme. The telemarketers lied to consumers about products they would receive and threatened them with false consequences for the failure to pay for shipments of products they did not order and did not want. Both defendants pled guilty and received significant prison sentences; one defendant was sentenced to nine years in prison, the other to ten years in prison.

The recent civil and criminal case against Ranbaxy USA Inc., a subsidiary of Indian generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited, demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that pharmaceutical companies comply with current good manufacturing practices so that the drugs they produce have the identity and strength and meet the quality and purity characteristics that they purport to possess. In this ground breaking case—because of its focus on overseas manufacturing —Ranbaxy USA pled guilty to felony charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of certain drugs made at two of Ranbaxy’s manufacturing facilities in India. Ranbaxy agreed to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture totaling $150 million.

A recent injunction against Pennsylvania-based dairy firms and individuals illustrates our vigilance to make sure that the food on our tables is safe to eat. The Consumer Protection Branch obtained a permanent injunction designed to prevent the distribution of foods that contain excessive drug residue in a case concerning the sale of cows that contained antibiotic residues in their edible tissues. Excessive levels of certain drugs in the edible tissues of animals pose a significant public health risk. In this case, the defendants had received numerous warnings from both FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture that their conduct violated the law, and they failed to take steps to correct those violations.

Violations of the federal consumer protection laws may not always make the headlines, but they affects millions of Americans each year. As we mark National Consumer Protection Week at the Department of Justice, we reaffirm our commitment to using the authorities we have been given to protect consumers from all manner of harm that these legal violations can cause.

The Consumer Protection Branch leads the Justice Department’s efforts to protect the health, safety and economic security of the American consumer. The Branch, together with its partners in the Department’s U.S. Attorney’s Offices and in consumer protection agencies, fulfills this mission through civil and criminal enforcement of federal consumer protection statutes across the country. Since 2009, the consumer protection efforts of the Civil Division, working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country, have led to recoveries of more than $6.7 billion, to over 175 criminal convictions, and to total sentences of confinement exceeding 397 years. Visit www.justice.gov/civil for the latest Civil Division news, www.justice.gov/civil/cpb/cpb_home.html to learn more about the Consumer Protection Branch, or follow the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Twitter @TheJusticeDept.

 
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