Executive Director's Corner
Equal Justice Belongs in Every Heart
Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but here at Equal Justice Works we carry our love for justice year-round.
This year is the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision which ruled that the Constitution required counsel be provided for indigent individuals accused of a serious crime. This month we celebrate two Fellows who are working in public defender offices.
Claire Nilsen Blumenson is a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig and hosted by The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Claire began her path to public service with Teach For America in Brooklyn, NY. She loved teaching and felt a strong connection with her students, but she also saw children who were expelled or dropped out—and she was moved to do something to help them get back on their feet. She went to the University of Virginia Law School where she was inspired to develop her project, which provides no-cost education representation to youth placed at a secure detention facility in DC.
In 2010, Equal Justice Works partnered with Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center) to create the Public Defender Corps to support and launch a new generation of public defenders who would raise the standard of representation across the country. If you want to see an inspiring example of this new breed of lawyer, watch this short video posted by the New York Times on Op-Docs.
Sara Whitaker is a member of the 2012 class of Public Defender Corps. Sara works for the West Virginia Public Defender Services in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Charleston, and she is excited to be part of the movement to provide justice for all as a public defender.
These are two lawyers who are working to address some of the systemic injustices faced by low-income individuals in our criminal justice system. This work is among the toughest to do because the resources are stacked in favor of the government, and the general public has little sympathy for the clients. On top of that, many public defender offices are underfunded, understaffed and burdened with insurmountable caseloads. I am proud we have roughly 40 Fellows who are currently working on these issues, making a difference in the lives of hundreds of clients by providing them their fundamental right to counsel.
Fellows on the Front
Working at the intersection of education and juvenile justice
Claire Nilsen Blumenson has always had an interest in public service, having been raised by a pair of public interest lawyers. After graduating from Wesleyan University, she served with Teach For America in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn at the Excellence Boys Charter School. “Being in the classroom gave me a clear understanding of how important education can be in shaping a young person's life,” she says. “However, it illuminated the challenges teachers and parents face when trying to advocate for children involved in the juvenile justice system. When young men are expelled from school and in trouble with the law, there is little educational recourse. Although I loved teaching, I decided to attend the University of Virginia Law School to pursue my interest in the intersection of education and juvenile justice.”
While in law school, Claire debated with herself about whether to go into educational policy work or direct representation, or a mixture of both. She spent the first summer of law school undertaking an educational reform fellowship through Education Pioneers, an organization that works with graduate students from different disciplines to develop sustainable and innovative pathways to education reform. Through this fellowship, Claire says that she “became more aware of the effectiveness of direct representation and legal advocacy.” She spent the next summer as an intern at her current host site, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS). Sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, her Fellowship at PDS started in 2011, and has been a great way for Claire to find her niche in special education in juvenile justice.
Throughout Claire’s Fellowship, she has found that many of the 18-22 year-old clients she meets are facing similar issues—such as accumulating enough credits to graduate after being moved to different schools for many years, several of which don’t comply with DC Public Schools’ requirements. Noticing that so many of her clients were struggling with the same problems, Claire knew that deeper systemic changes were necessary. She filed complaints against three DC agencies and “worked with them to swiftly address the clients’ adverse situations, and, simultaneously, highlight the system-wide reform necessary to address the larger structural gaps.” She says that “these efforts resulted in system-wide policy reform through an inter-agency Memorandum of Agreement governing education for over 1000 court-involved youth. Through collaboration, the agencies produced a document that has great potential to revolutionize education for a systematically underserved group of students.”
As for next steps after her Fellowship wraps up, Claire’s future looks bright. She recently co-founded a special education legal services organization, the School Justice Project (SJP), which is planning to launch as a nonprofit organization after her Fellowship term ends. “Building on the work of my current fellowship, SJP’s purpose is to protect and advocate for the special education rights of older court-involved students during incarceration and upon reentry,” she says. “We will provide free special education legal representation and advocacy to court-involved youth ages 17-22 in DC.” SJP will be the only organization of its kind dedicated to helping this older student population. “Our focus is on clients’ needs during and after incarceration,” says Claire. “We will represent those students most deeply entrenched in the delinquency and criminal justice systems to obtain the quality education and transition support services they are entitled to by law.”
It’s always great to see a Fellow find her niche the way Claire has, and to turn it into a robust public interest law career. We are looking forward to seeing how Claire’s seed of justice grows and flourishes in the future.
Public Defender Corps Spotlight
A Public Defense career takes shape in West Virginia
Sara Whitaker started out on a very different career path than the one she is on now. In her “previous life” she worked in sports marketing in London, and although she enjoyed her work, she felt like something was missing. “I wanted the values I held in my private life to match the work I did in my public life,” she said. “That’s what fueled me to shift gears and enroll in law school to work in public interest.” Sara is now a member of the 2012 class of Public Defender Corps (PDC), a joint program between Equal Justice Works and Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center). Public Defender Corps aims to support the public defense community by providing training and jobs to young lawyers like Sara who want to serve in the public interest. Today, she works for the West Virginia Public Defender Services in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Charleston.
Before beginning her service as a PDC member, Sara interned at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Chicago, where she first experienced the happiness that comes with looking forward to going to work every day. “I loved each element of the job: the endless research, the irreverent underdog mentality of the other public defenders, interviewing and getting to know clients, and the challenge of being in the courtroom,” said Sara.
At the West Virginia PDS, Sara is facing new challenges. The bulk of her workload is now focused on domestic violence cases, an issue that she had little experience with. But she has a great attitude about it, recognizing that she has the opportunity to overcome personal biases through this work. “What I learned is that, like most people in the criminal justice system, people charged with domestic offenses are routinely stigmatized and mistreated by prosecutors and judges,” she says. “But they are human just like the rest of us.”
Sara makes every effort to make sure her clients aren’t rushed through system. Taking the time to ask questions, listen, and take appropriate action are essential for ensuring defendants receive a fair trial. In many of Sara’s cases, she has seen incomplete investigation, unreliable testimony, and a lack of hard evidence from the prosecutors. Many of her clients are given “only minutes to decide whether to give up their right to trial and plead guilty, or whether to take the risk of trial to force the State to prove its case,” she said. This is one of the problems Sara hopes to change. “In the long run addressing this means finding ways to work with the prosecutor’s office to reduce the overall caseload by weeding out meritless cases.”
Sara is exited to return to the next training session at Gideon’s Promise this August so she can share her experiences with other PDC members, learn from them, and learn from her public defense mentors. For anyone thinking about pursuing a career in public defense, Sara has great advice: “As a public defender, you will fight battles every day in court. Make your life a little easier by developing strong trial advocacy skills. Take every trial advocacy class. Join the trial team. Sign up for a legal clinic. Intern in a public defender office. When you are standing in front of a judge for the first time, you may not remember all of the doctrine learned in school, but you will be glad for every minute of advocacy experience you acquired.”
Sara has found her calling as a public defender. Like so many people who pursue public interest careers, she started out unsure if she should take the risk. “Until I worked in a public defender office, I was not 100% certain that the personal reward of defending the indigent would outweigh the financial security of taking a corporate or firm job,” she says. “Now I have no doubts.”
Equal Justice Works recently completed an evaluation of our 2011-2012 AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Projects. Results revealed the diverse ways in which AmeriCorps Legal Fellows improve the lives of veterans through legal services.
The evaluation by legal aid expert John Tull focused primarily on assessing the degree to which AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Projects achieved their intended outcomes: stabilizing the lives of veterans and their families through procuring permanent income via employment or government benefits, securing housing, and assuring access to medical care and supportive services.
The evaluation had three objectives: to assess the outcomes being achieved for veteran clients; to review the approach and methods used by projects; and to recommend ways to report data that demonstrate project outcomes. In his assessment, Tull extensively reviewed each host site’s outcome data, conducted an online survey of non-legal organizations that serve veterans in conjunction with the host site projects, and visited each host site to conduct in-person interviews.
Low-income and homeless veterans face a web of problems and challenges that are often locked in place by a single legal problem, or a combination thereof, that are interrelated and self-reinforcing. Veterans require legal assistance to untangle this web and move forward in their stable post-service life.
The evaluation revealed that in one year, 10 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and their law students were able to improve the lives of 264 veterans, secure concrete benefits worth at least $1.9 million and serve 2,240 veterans with legal advice and brief services. The results:
Ø Won disability benefits for 25 veterans totaling $1.5 million – $422,130 in back benefits and $1,039,575 in yearly benefits
Ø Resolved 28 child support cases, modifying monthly payments to a manageable level (totaling $100,464 a year), and reducing arrearages by $265,078
Ø Succeeded in having $73,714 worth of fines and penalties waived or dismissed for 72 veterans
Ø 10 veterans became employed after a legal barrier was removed
Ø Obtained increased visitation or custody of children for five veterans
Ø Expunged 20 minor criminal matters, increasing the likelihood of gaining employment
Ø The VA denies 30% of all claims and 37% of PTSD claims but one Equal Justice Works pilot host site, Inner City Law Center, filed only complex mental disability claims and had just 8% of its claims denied by the VA.
Ø When asked through a survey whether the AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Project had a positive impact helping to stabilize the lives of veterans or otherwise improve the lives of veterans served, 89.5% of respondents from veteran-serving organizations responded “strongly agree” or “agree.”
One particular outcome that stood out in Tull’s report was the work done by the AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Projects to strengthen the veteran-serving network in their communities. Indiana Legal Services (ILS), for example, serves the entire state of Indiana and, before the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps project, served very few veterans. The lawyer member at this site, a veteran herself, trained ILS lawyers on veteran laws and veteran cultural competency and conducted significant outreach that included all 92 of Indiana's county-employed Veteran Service Officers. As a result, in two years, ILS's 51 attorneys nearly quadrupled the number of veterans served from 152 to 600 (not counting those served directly by the AmeriCorps Legal Fellow).
For many veterans, escape from homelessness is all but impossible without the intervention of a lawyer to help them overcome legal impediments that lock them into a life on the street. AmeriCorps Veterans Fellows provided legal services with proficiency and dedication, creating demonstrable results that significantly increased the quality of their clients’ lives.
Equal Justice Works plans to expand this work this summer and beyond. Applications are now open for law students to serve veterans as part of the AmeriCorps-supported Summer Corps. Summer Corps members receive a $1,175 education award upon completion of 300 hours of service. More information about the program and application process can be found on our website.
Educational Debt Tip of the Month
How Student Debt Impacts Credit Scores
Given the continued rise in law school tuition, a question we hear a lot is, “Will my student debt have a negative impact on my credit score?” Fortunately, according to this post from the FICO Banking Analytics Blog, large amounts of student debt do not currently result in lowered credit scores. The blog also notes that deferring your student loans will not necessarily have a negative impact.
This does come with a major caveat: you have to handle your loans responsibly. It is especially important to make your payments on time and build up an excellent payment history. Your payment history accounts for roughly 35 percent of your credit score.
Of course, managing your payments responsibly is much easier if you have federal loans and can rely on income-driven repayment plans, including Income-Based Repayment and the new Pay As You Earn program. Federal loans also have options for deferment and forbearance if you need them.
You should also get a free copy of your credit report annually (you can do that at www.annualcreditreport.com) and correct any inaccurate information. Erroneous information can have a real impact on your creditworthiness.
If you have questions about how to manage your student debt – and thereby ensure your continued creditworthiness – visit Equal Justice Works’ website or utilize the comprehensive resources we provide like our free webinars and our new eBook, Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt (available now in the Kindle store).