Public Interest News Bulletin – February 10, 2012

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday, dear readers.  I’m traveling home to Philadelphia, where I will eat soft pretzels, catch hometown band Marah, and see photographer Zoe Strauss’s Phila. Art Museum exhibit.  Before the public interest news summary, here are some other news items that have captured my attention of late:

Okay, this week’s public interest news:

  • indigent defense reform in Massachusetts plods along;
  • needed: indigent defense reform, plodding or otherwise, in NOLA;
  • Maryland legal services providers facing bad funding news;
  • 5 myths about pro bono;
  • DOJ to put ~$2.4 million in grant funding toward improving indigent defense;
  • a $200K gift for a Philly legal services provider;
  • but an inland California provider is going month-to-month with expenses;
  • in Wisconsin, low prosecutor pay = high prosecutor turnover;
  • the 25-year evolution of clinical legal education is the focus of a new law review volume;
  • survey results shed light on what kinds of pro bono cases law firm lawyers are taking. 

The summaries:

  • 2.8.12 - indigent defense reform in Massachusetts plods along…kind of.  For the second straight year, Gov. Deval Patrick has called for public defenders to [represent more] indigent clients, but members of the board overseeing the state’s public defense system are pushing back, suggesting the plan may be too much, too soon.  The governor’s budget proposes to hire 281 new public defenders to handle 50 percent of the case work for indigent criminal and civil defendants. If adopted, the state would shift further shift away from a reliance on private bar advocates and Patrick believes the state will save nearly $10 million in fiscal 2013.”  The board is concerned that Patrick is pushing change too quickly.
  • 2.6.12 – bad news for civil legal service funding in Maryland.  The Baltimore Sun reports: “A major funder of legal services for the poor will shave its grants by at least 5 percent across Maryland — even after dipping into its reserves.  The 34 agencies that receive money from the Maryland Legal Services Corp. have been told to submit requests for grants next month that are 5 percent below current amounts because it is facing a ‘significant’ funding shortfall…. The…two main funding sources — the surcharge on court filing fees for civil cases and [IOLTA proceeds] — have been hit by the economy.
  • 2.6.12 - writing in the National Law Journal, Pro Bono Institute prez Esther Lardent identifies and debunks ”Five Myths about Pro Bono.”  The myths:
    •  Law firms only want “sexy” pro bono matters;
    • Pro bono at large firms is dropping precipitously;
    • In-house pro bono is a passing fad;
    • Pro bono can supplant legal aid;
    • It’s all about the hours.
  • 2.6.12 – from the ABA Journal: “U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today announced two new [DOJ] programs aimed at helping to bolster indigent defense services at the state and local levels….  [T]he National Institute of Justice…will begin…soliciting applications within the next few weeks for grants to support research on fundamental issues of access to legal services…at the state and local levels. He said the institute will commit up to $1 million to support these grants.  Holder also said that, later this spring, the…Bureau of Justice Assistance will solicit applications from state and local jurisdictions for grants that would support on-the-ground efforts to help assure that defendants have access to counsel at the earliest stages of criminal proceedings; provide support for members of the private bar in representing indigent defendants; reduce caseloads; and support oversight of public defender and assigned counsel systems. Up to $1.4 million will be dedicated to this grant program.”  Here’s some Nat’l. Law Journal coverage of AG Holder’s remarks on the importance of a solid indigent defense system, made at the ABA’s midyear conference.
  • 2.5.12 - a story about the work of the Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino included a troubling passage about LASSB’s funding: “[A recent grant ensured that LASSB] could make payroll one more week and have a little money left over….  The organization, with an estimated $2 million annual budget, almost constantly searches for money to pay 13 employees, operate its office and provide services throughout the county….  ‘We are living right now from paycheck to paycheck,’ [executive director Roberta] Shouse said. ‘My bookkeeper tells me that we do not have enough money to go until Dec. 31.’  Since 2007, Legal Aid’s number of clients has increased from 4,485 to 5,071. Meanwhile, the organization lost nearly $139,000 from 2010 to 2011. It expects to lose about $110,000 in funding this year.  (Story from the Press-Enterprise.) 
  • 2.4.12 – here’s a detailed report on the serious problem of low prosecutor pay and high prosecutor attrition – cause, meet effect - in Wisconsin.  One departing prosecutor, leaving after 5 years, referred to her “dead-end job.”  The low pay has led to a staffing reality that a lot of public interest organizations see: “There are newbies, potential retirees and not much in between in prosecutors’ offices.  Forty-two percent of assistant [DAs] have been in the field for fewer than five years and a third have more than 17 years of experience…”  Legislative proposals allowing for raised pay levels are in the works, but in the current fiscal climate few are counting on quick solutions.  (Article from the Appleton Post-Crescent.)    
  • February, 2012 – some survey reporting from the folks at Pro Bono.net sheds light on what types of cases pro bono advocates are taking: “Family law and immigration were among the most popular areas for pro bono work in 2011, according to the 229 Probono.net members who took a recent survey on “Your Year in Pro Bono.” The survey, conducted during December 2011, looked at which areas of legal need were of interest, and why. Family law emerged as a top priority, with more than 27% of those responding having handled a family law matter as their last pro bono case. Following was immigration, at 15%. Other areas of interest included asylum, housing and military and veteran’s affairs. The survey showed a strong commitment to pro bono, with 52% of respondents having taken on their last case in the last three months, and 69% within the last six months. Awareness of the growing justice gap seems to be driving this activity.”

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