PSJD Public Interest News Digest – March 25, 2016

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Friday! Spring is here!  Ok, maybe just a day or 2 in the DMV. But let’s enjoy it while it lasts!

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Tagalog legal assistance helpline launched in LA County;
  • Justice Department addresses high cost of court fines and fees on the poor;
  • New Mexico’s Chief Public Defender resigns;
  • Spotlight on Public Service Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

March 18, 2016 – “To expand its reach of legal services in the growing Filipino community, non-profit organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles has launched a free Tagalog helpline to assist the community with citizenship issues. ‘We know that many Filipino-Americans speak English, but many still have language barriers and many prefer to speak Tagalog or another Filipino dialect as they try to get services,’ said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Advancing Justice. ‘Without that, many Filipinos have difficulties accessing services and will not come forward. Somewill suffer in silence rather than reaching out and getting the help that they need.'” “The new line is part of Advancing Justice’s Asian Language Legal Intake Project (ALLIP), which provides toll-free hotlines to low-income community members in a variety of legal areas, including family law and domestic violence, employment, housing and immigration. The Tagalog line will focus on the area of citizenship, as Advancing Justice has noticed that many Fil-Ams wish to become US citizens.” (Asian Journal)

March 18, 2016 – “In a letter this week to local courts in all 50 states, the Justice Department put judges on notice that slapping fines and fees on defendants without regard for their ability to pay can be a constitutionally dubious practice. In some instances, it has relegated judges and police to roles that have little to do with justice and protecting the public, and more to do with filling the public coffers.” “In the Justice Department letter, Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice, wrote of the imposition of unchecked court costs that ‘in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue . . . can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.’ The officials urged courts to adhere to basic constitutional principles, warning them not to jail poor people who failed to pay court costs because they couldn’t afford it, and to consider alternatives such as community service for indigent defendants. Judges were also cautioned not to keep poor defendants in jail solely on the basis of their inability to post bail and not to make payment of court costs a condition of access to judicial hearings.” (Washington Post)

March 23, 2016 – “Simmering tensions between the newly minted independent New Mexico Public Defender Commission and its executive, Chief Defender Jorge Alvarado, led this week to Alvarado’s resignation after two years and four months at the helm. He said he was leaving with ‘a heavy heart,’ mindful that there have been dramatic changes during the transition from being an agency overseen by the executive branch to one with an independent commission setting policy. Alvarado’s announcement of his imminent departure, official April 1, was accompanied by a long, impassioned missive to the attorneys and staff in the department sent out late Monday.” “The commission has scheduled an April 1 meeting, its first in months, at which an interim chief will be named, or at least a committee appointed to look into procedures to maintain continuity and seek a replacement, commission chairman Michael Stout said Tuesday.” (Albuquerque Journal)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

“A group in Salisbury, North Carolina has seen the need for legal aid, but not everyone has access to the help they provide. A new justice initiative aims to help people by coming to them. It’s the brain child of City Council member and attorney David Post. It’s hard to miss the bright green RV rolling through Salisbury and East Spencer. Jackie Leach, who needed some legal help, knows firsthand just what the traveling ‘Center for Access to Justice’ can do. ‘He was able to take time out even though he had other things scheduled to help me and from that point on, he’s been a great access to me and I’m quite sure he’ll be a great access to others,’ said Leach.

A chance meeting at the courthouse gave Leach the help she needed. The traveling initiative is the result of years of planning, by Post and other community attorneys and activists. Post saw a need for legal help, after talking with some West End residents. ‘A lot of them don’t have cars, so the only way for them to see me, is they have to take a bus and then a second bus, so I came up with this idea of an RV,’ said Post. ‘There are more people that go to the courthouse every single day, every single day, than go to every doctor and the hospital in Salisbury,’ said Post. Post said legal aid is hard to come by in the Salisbury and Greensboro area, with 200,000 people qualifying for legal aid. ‘You have about one lawyer for about 40-50 thousand people,’ said Post.” (TWC News)

Super Music Bonus!  This week we have a special treat.  Our music pick is from the 2015 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Winner Lark Mulligan.

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