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Equal Justice at Work: January 2013

Executive Director's Corner

Honoring Martin Luther King Day

On January 21, we will remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his great contributions to civil rights and equality in the United States. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his famous “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. Half a century after that historic event, we can see how far we’ve come—in just a few days our nation's first African-American president will be sworn in for a second term on the opposite end of the Mall.  But we must acknowledge how much is still to be done. Social injustice continues to occur every day across the United States. 

Equal Justice Works is proud to have Fellows who are continuing the fight for equal rights and working to affect real change in their communities.  In this newsletter you can read about two of these Fellows. Richael Faithful is a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow who is working on the Virginia Rights Restoration Project at the Advancement Project in Washington, DC, helping to change the state disenfranchisement laws and improve the voting rights restoration system.  Kate Benward is a member of the Public Defender Corps working with immigrants in rural Kentucky and helping them to navigate the complex and often devastating intersection of criminal and immigration law.

As we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us celebrate the strides we’ve made toward equality, but also challenge one another to continue our march for justice.  As Dr. King so eloquently stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 


Fellows on the Front

Restoring Civil Rights in Virginia

There are only four states in the U.S. which automatically take away a person’s civil rights when they are convicted of a felony: Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia. Once a person has served their sentence and re-entered the community—living, working, and paying taxes—they have lost their right to vote, hold office, serve on a jury, or become a notary. In Virginia, a person can directly petition the governor to have his rights restored, but the path to rights restoration is long and arduous. 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow Richael Faithful saw this challenge and decided to meet it head-on, by serving out her project in an effort to change complicated rights restoration laws in Virginia.

Richael is serving her Fellowship at the Advancement Project in Washington, DC, working specifically on the Virginia Rights Restoration Project. Currently, there are 350,000 disenfranchised voters in Virginia, and fewer than 2% of them have had their voting rights restored due to the complicated and outdated process they have to go through for restoration. “Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement law is enshrined in the state constitution, and has not been substantively changed since 1850,” Richael says. “The only way to restore a citizen’s civil rights, including her voting rights, is to individually petition the Governor, much like a pardon.” The Virginia Rights Restoration Project aims to eliminate the petition system and replace it with automatic restoration after completion of a sentence. “This project creatively uses three main strategies to achieve this goal: providing greater access (direct assistance, trainings, clinics, self-help materials), movement-building (strategic mini-campaigns targeting the Governor, grassroots leadership building, statewide coalition-building) and possibly litigation (vis-a-vis a community-centered approach),” says Richael.

One of the highlights from her Fellowship to date came during the lead-up to the presidential election last fall. “We were able to pressure the Governor to restore the rights of hundreds before the October 15 voter registration deadline. When a person has their civil rights restored to them, it’s a glowing moment for me,” she says.

Richael sums it up best: “The barometer of success for this project is really the movement-building part. By working closely with long-time community leaders, many of whom have lost their rights and fought to have them restored, we learn a great deal about the actual rights restoration experience and the life-rebuilding experience post-conviction in general. Through this, we help build up a community and infrastructure to do this work for the long haul. We are leveraging our resources and time to strategically build and sustain support throughout the community.”



Fellows on the Front

A Public Defender Corps Member in LaGrange, Kentucky

While this year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, it is also the 50th anniversary of another turning point in the civil rights movement: the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to pay for their own attorneys. Today, public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed, making the caseload burden so great that some people in the criminal justice system are denied their right to effective counsel. That’s why Equal Justice Works teamed up with the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC) to start Public Defender Corps—a three year fellowship that places attorneys in public defender offices in high-need areas. The members began their Fellowship in an intensive “boot camp” training at SPDTC before starting their public defense jobs in Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and West Virginia. They receive ongoing funding, training and mentoring throughout their three-year fellowship.

Kate Benward is a Public Defender Corps member from the 2011 inaugural class, working in LaGrange, Kentucky at the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. Kate went to law school because she wanted to work on social justice issues and quickly realized she wanted to be a public defender. She volunteered at a public defender agency for a week during her first year, and what she saw there impacted her career choice. “It bothered me on a basic human level to see people confined behind bars, in shackles, and treated like they were a lesser class of human being at every step of the criminal justice system, from interaction with law enforcement to the courts,” she says.  “I was especially disgusted by how this process of dehumanization was largely reserved for the poorest, often most vulnerable members of society.  From that point on I knew that I wanted to work on behalf of indigent defendants and challenge the inequities of the criminal justice system.”

As a public defender working on behalf of the immigrant population in rural Kentucky, Kate sees injustice on a daily basis. “Where I practice, police officers routinely stop people on the basis of race and make arrests for driving on a suspended license, DUI, or other minor offenses,” she says. When these immigrants are placed in custody, they often have an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer placed on them. This means that the client can either wait out the court case in jail, or post bond and be released into ICE custody. “Many undocumented clients arrested for petty offenses choose to plead quickly, oftentimes at arraignment, to avoid sitting in jail waiting for their next court date when the most devastating outcome—deportation—awaits them regardless of the outcome of the criminal case,” Kate says. “This process severely undermines immigrant clients’ right to a defense.”

Even though her job isn’t easy, Kate is motivated to keep working as a public defender, bringing justice to an underserved population. “I think that the inequities of our criminal justice system and immigrant rights are two of the most pressing civil rights issues of our day, and I will always be compelled to work in these areas of law,” Kate says. “The Fellowship has instilled in me a profound sense of duty as a public defender to challenge the routine injustices of the criminal justice system through excellent advocacy for indigent defendants.  I have learned so much through all the amazing training I have received as a Public Defender Corps Fellow, and I intend to maintain the ethic and spirit that the program has instilled me in throughout my career in indigent defense.”


AmeriCorps Update

AmeriCorps Outcomes & Summer Corps Update

As we celebrate the beginning of another new year, we want to highlight the recent accomplishments of our Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and look forward to another year of even greater success. The 778 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and Summer Corps members deployed in the 2011-2012 program year served a total of 72,499 low-income clients; assisted 2,504 veterans; and participated in 1,630 community collaborations.  

AmeriCorps Legal Fellows helped veterans stabilize their lives by removing barriers to income, housing, medical care and employment. Over the course of the year, 10 Fellows assisted 415 veterans in obtaining Veterans Affairs (V.A.) benefits. Fellows filed 100 Veteran Affairs, Social Security Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income benefits cases and have already won 24 of them. Due to the processing time of these cases, the majority of the cases are still pending. Of the cases won, clients received $422,130 in back benefits. The majority of clients served by AmeriCorps Legal Fellows are chronically homeless. Due to the intervention of our Fellows, 104 veterans obtained housing, 19 have access to health care as a result of legal services, 32 veterans increased their V.A. health care priority level, $392,586 worth of fines and penalties were waived, and 14 veterans became employed after a legal barrier was removed. Securing these avenues to income often means that for the first time in a long time, these veterans are able to obtain permanent housing and can stop worrying about their day-to-day survival and start working to put their lives back on track.

The outcomes from an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow’s legal work continue to have an impact long after the end of the Fellowship. This fall, Equal Justice Works learned that a national directive from the Department of Veterans Affairs was sparked by one AmeriCorps Legal Fellow’s tenacity. Patrick Brooks served at Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV) in Clarksburg. Wanting to provide more holistic care to veterans, he advocated for the establishment of a medical-legal partnership between LAWV and the Louis A. Johnson V.A. Medical Center. The partnership not only significantly lightened the logistical burden of receiving legal services for hundreds of veterans; it also greatly improved the quality of social services available to patients by allowing for innovative cross-collaboration. The success of the partnership led to a national directive from V.A. headquarters encouraging all V.A. facilities to seek legal aid partners.

In addition to helping address the needs of veterans, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and Summer Corps members were also successful in addressing clients with additional diverse needs. Members saved 365 homes from foreclosure, preserving stability for hundreds of families, including 237 children, 112 seniors, 11 veterans and 42 people with a disability. Our members also represented 1,488 disaster victims with their legal issues in the aftermath of such disasters as the BP Oil Spill, the Joplin tornadoes, and Hurricane Katrina, helping the people of these these hard-hit areas get their lives back on track.

We are extremely proud of and grateful for our 2011-2012 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows and Summer Corps members.  We look forward to witnessing yet another year of fantastic work from our members working toward a more just society.

SUMMER CORPS UPDATE: Equal Justice Works Summer Corps applications are now OPEN! Summer Corps is an AmeriCorps-funded program that provides law students with the opportunity to earn an Education Award for dedicating their summer to a qualifying legal project at a nonprofit public interest organization.  Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis and preference will be given to projects in four priority legal issue areas: veterans, disaster relief, foreclosure, and medical-legal partnerships. For more information, check out the program on the Equal Justice Works website.


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

CFPB Report Details Problems with Private Student Loan Servicers

We’re big proponents of federal student loans. They have significant borrower safeguards, including income-driven repayment plans (like the new Pay As You Earn plan we wrote about in November), deferment and forbearance and are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Private student loans are far riskier. They have variable interest rates and risk-based pricing that are not disclosed to borrowers until the lender approves the loan (only a small percentage of borrowers actually receive rates comparable to federal Stafford loans). And they almost completely lack protections like income-driven repayment plans, deferment and forbearance.

These risks are exacerbated when borrowers have problems dealing with the servicers of their private student loans. Unfortunately, as the recent Annual Report of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman details, this is not uncommon.

The majority of issues reported fell into the “repaying your loan” category, which included responsible borrowers stymied in their attempts to work with their servicers in order to avoid defaulting. Another issue highlighted in the report was “unexpected checking account transactions” in which borrowers with checking accounts with the same companies that handled their loan found the lenders deducting funds from their checking accounts without notice or agreement.

Addressing these private student loan servicing issues is crucial because their negative impact is magnified by the lack of protections for private student loan borrowers. It’s also another reason that anyone borrowing student loans should make sure to maximize their eligibility for federal loans before turning to private loans. (Graduate and professional students should be able to avoid private loans by utilizing Direct PLUS Loans instead.) For anyone concerned about borrowing or repaying student loans, our comprehensive new eBook, Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt (available now in the Kindle store), is a great resource.