How State-Wide Groups Might Help Deal With The “Ferguson Chasm”

Here are some suggestions for how ATJ Commissions and other statewide groups (or those just advocating) might move forward on addressing the “Ferguson Chasm” — the gap between communities and the entire legal system, epitomized by Ferguson using the court system as an ATM on the backs of the people.

These ideas were developed for a session held at the recent ATJ Chairs meeting held in association with the Equal Justice Conference, so the ideas may be familiar to some of Commission leadership.  Thanks to Bonnie Hough, Califoarnia Courts, and Kelli Evans, the California State Ba, who co-led the workshop and helped with the list.

  • Develop a pilot community-based court self-help/navigator center. Ideally this should be done in a way that it can be scaled easily. One such approach would be to use community organization volunteers supervised (perhaps remotely by video) by court staff or contracted community-based legal aid. (Such a center could also help people confidentially check their warrant and case status.)
  • Develop network of community liaisons for state self-help resources (Alaska model), potentially including health centers, schools, libraries, faith-based organizations.
  • Do survey on attitudes about legal system by class, ethnicity and neighborhood, and what might change such attitudes.
  • Obtain state and county-wide statistics on numbers of civil case warrants issued, people incarcerated, or losing driving licenses or other licenses, for non-payment of fines, court costs, for nonpayment of child support, etc.
  • Audit availability and effectiveness of protections – and where needed enhance such protections — to ensure that such people are not being penalized despite inability to pay (Turner v. Rogers). Examples would be rule clarification, individualized outreach to litigants, additional information for litigants at multiple steps in the process, setting up an informational hotline, educating judges, training court staff, and/or establishing online tools. (Note: much of this activity could be 2/3 compensated under non-caped IV-D Child Support Enforcement Funds.)
  • Partner w/ researchers and courts to conduct impact analysis of existing and proposed fees, and require ATJ impact analysis
  • Partner with legal aid to educate legislators and other stakeholders about the impact on individuals, families, communities, and access to justice from drivers’ license suspension and other practices and sanctions
  • Simplify fee waiver processes and make sure they are very accessible; encourage a “blanket” waiver policy for means-tested benefit recipients and those assisted by programs that income qualify clients;
  • Support record clearance projects (opportunity to engage law schools and pro bono counsel and also increase civic engagement to the extent record clearance helps restore voting rights), including making self-help resources on the topic available.
  • Advocate for the end of license suspension as a debt collection tool
  • Support programs that allow people to have court fees and fines waived or reduced; similarly, support income-based repayment plans and partial payment options.
  • Partner with legal aid to educate legislators and other stakeholders about the impact on individuals, families, communities, and access to justice from drivers’ license suspension and other practices and sanctions

Any and all of these would be helpful, and seem like good starting places.  For a prior blog on this general topic, see this.

Please add other ideas in the Comments.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Access to Justice Boards, Chasm with Communities, Child Support, Court Fees and Costs, Policing, Self-Help Services, Simplification. Bookmark the permalink.