As Department of Justice Access to to Justice Director Foster pointed out at her keynote at the Equal Justice Conference, yesterday (see below for full text), there have been sixteen of these Conferences. What she did not point out was that this is the first time that the Conference has been addressed by someone in her position. So this alone represents an important step, and she rose to the challenge of saying something very different and helpful that lays the groundwork for different access world.
Frankly, we have become used to many such speeches at these kind of conferences, they start with a statement about how terrible things are, they recite the numbers, they tell us what wonderful work we do what heroes we are.
But this was a fundamentally different speech. The pivot point was these words:
One could argue, based on those statistics that the movement for equal justice in America has not made much progress. But those statistics are only half the story.
And then she went on to highlight the achievements — the Commissions, and,
In 1999, the internet was new, self-help centers were rare, and we still used Latin to refer to self-represented litigants. Today, we have HotDocs, ProBono Net, Stateside Legal, the Self-Represented Litigants Network, Limited License Legal Technicians in Washington, Navigators in New York, and the Justice Corps in California.
And in 1999, although there was a Department of Justice, there was no sign on the door anywhere in the building that said this.
And she showed the office door sign slide.
She also spoke about the trends that we creating opportunities for change, starting specifically about the new and critical focus on inequality:
What’s different today is that everyone – and I mean everyone – is talking about it. The President has called income inequality, “the defining challenge of our time.” In January, at a forum sponsored by Freedom Partners, an organization that describes itself as a chamber of commerce that promotes the benefits of free markets and a free society, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio all spoke about the problem of income inequality. Jeb Bush said that Americans are frustrated because they see only a few people riding “the economy’s up escalator.”
It’s not just the chattering classes that are worried about income inequality and the collateral damage it can cause. Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 54 countries about which of five dangers people considered to be the “greatest threat to the world.” Many of the countries polled listed religious and ethnic hatred first. Americans chose income inequality.
She is right that is a critical change, and while it presents many challenges to our community, they can be overcome. Our polling data, and our political experience, particularly in Washington, tell us that an inequality message risks fragmenting the very carefully built up bi-partisan consensus about access to justice funding. Yet, when the discussion about surely we can find a way to leverage this to greater rather then lesser bi-partisan support for this funding. The key, at least initially, I suspect is in the next poin Lisa Foster made:
The second dynamic can be summarized in a word — and in pictures: Ferguson. Ferguson – a city whose fiscal and judicial policies have trapped too many of its largely African-American residents in a cycle of poverty and despair.
The light that was shined on Ferguson – a light made a little brighter by the Report issued by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – that light has illuminated many other dark corners of our country where the practice of incarcerating people simply because they can’t pay geometrically mounting fines and fees is rampant. In California, and in many other states, the Legislature has permitted and in many instances required judges to suspend or revoke a person’s driver’s license if they have not paid fees, fines or child support, leading – because one has to drive to get to work to earn the money to pay off those fines and fees – to additional citations and ultimately arrest.
I think our message has to be — being poor is not a crime, and neither is being middle income. Its not so much about lessening inequality, but about lessening both the causes of, and consequences of inequality — and it turns out that the legal system — even the accessibility of the legal system, are contributors to inequality, and exacerbators of the consequences. Maybe that is a broader message that can drive change. Indeed, Lisa’s third major point, the importance of criminal justice reform, highlighted this, with its implications for exclusion from the job market, and thus permanent exclusion from the main legal path out of poverty:
At a speech at the National Press Club last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley said: “We’re seeing studies that show 32 percent of American adults have criminal records if arrest records are included. If an employer uses the database for hiring purposes, the records can be inaccurate and old. It’s unfair that an arrest – not resulting in a conviction – is included in a criminal background check. And while there is a process by which people can contest their records being in the database, there are flaws in that process that need to be looked at and changed.” In the same speech, Senator Grassley also called for counsel to be provided in civil asset forfeiture proceedings, the need to ensure that the states are truly meeting their constitutional obligations under Gideon, and the need to reform the juvenile justice system. Bipartisanship can happen.
Indeed, a national expungement strategy should be a key part of our new law and anti-inequality agenda.
The speech also included detailed and inspiring examples of partnerships, and just as important, a very strong message about the importance of overcoming fragmentation with strategy at the national and local levels.
To make progress, we need a coordinated strategy. The movement for equal justice is larger than our individual offices or programs. We need to be aware of and work in concert with all of the many organizations that try to secure justice for, and improve the lives of our clients, including the courts, community health centers, social service agencies, and state and local government.
And that’s hard, because we are, truly by definition, fragmented. We are often geographically fragmented – we are legal aid of mid-Florida and Western Michigan, and southeast Louisiana.
We are fragmented by issues – protection and advocacy services, housing, domestic violence and immigration. We are fragmented by affiliation – we are LSC and non-LSC programs, we are law school clinics, pro bono programs, and court self-help centers. It’s also hard because, let’s face it, we are for the most part overworked – we have too much to do without trying to figure out what everyone else is doing and try to work together.
But we must. An effective strategy can’t just be at the national level – although rest assured, we at ATJ, together with national organizations like NLADA, the ABA, Voices for Civil Justice and many others, are working on it. Coordination – and critical thinking – has to start at the local and state level. We need to assess our community’s strengths and weaknesses and then coordinate and integrate services. We can’t afford to be duplicative or competitive.
That is a very major challenge, and a critical one, building on the research work, in which DOJ has played such a critical role. Hopefully the LAIR work, in which DOJ helps get other federal agencies interested in the access community, and integrating them into grant eligibility, and which Lisa also highlighted, can be a critical lever for this.
Equally important was the highlighting of the importance of research and evaluation, with frankly, Lisa issuing an implied warning:
This year, the White House Office of Management and Budget – or OMB – launched the budgeting process by telling every department that their budgets should advance “evidence-based policymaking by increasing access to administrative data, utilizing low-cost randomized trials, embedding evidence and evaluation into grant programs, and strengthening agencies’ capacity to build and use evidence.”
She followed up with examples of research into successful projects, and examples of how DOJ embeds the approach into its work. This is unavoidable, and it is only a matter of time before we will be help accountable if we do not get with this program.
So, far more than most keynotes, this was a speech of optimism and challenge — optimism about how much we have done, and why this is such a moment of great opportunity, but also challenge because she implicitly reminded us of how much we have to stretch and change in order to take advantage of the moment and fulfill our obligations to our clients and the future.
When a speech covers so much, it takes time to fully sink in. Hopefully by the end of the Conference we will have a sense of what more might need to be done to ensure that the lessons that Director Foster sought to teach are fully internalized into our work and our movement.
What more can I say, but “Congratulations on a true keynote.”
Well, I can paste in the photo of the summary written up in front of us during the speech.
Click below for full text.