Posts Categorized: BBA Initiatives

Speaking Out Against the Death Penalty in the Context of the Boston Marathon Trial

If someone had asked me before today to name something I had in common with both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sister Helen Prejean, I would have been hard pressed for an answer. Not anymore.

This week, I had the honor of accepting on behalf of the BBA the Mass Citizens Against the Death Penalty’s Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award. In choosing us to receive this award, MCADP highlighted the hard work and deep analysis that went into creating the BBA’s Death Penalty Report of 2013, as well as our 40-year history of opposition to capital punishment.

This is a complex and controversial issue. I understand and respect that not everyone – BBA members and nonmembers alike – will agree with the Association’s position. That aside, it was gratifying to see the careful research and thoughtful analysis of the Working Group be recognized.

I shared the honors with Professor Stephen Nathanson of Northeastern University, who received the Hugo A. Bedau Award for his book, An Eye for Eye: The Immorality of Punishing by Death.

I had the chance to meet and speak with MCADP Chairman David Ehrmann, grandson of Herbert and Sara, for whom the award is named. I was humbled to realize that the reception and award ceremony is not an annual event, but something that is given out when the board is moved by an individual’s or group’s actions. In addition to the BBA, the award has been given to John Kerry, the Archdiocese of Boston, and Sister Helen Prejean.

During the course of the evening, both Ehrmann and MCADP President James Rooney cited BBA’s 2013 Report, which was a team effort led by Marty Murphy and Judge Margaret Hinkle.  The report makes the case that the death penalty is fundamentally inconsistent with the fair administration of our system of justice, pointing out that:

  • The inevitability of error in criminal cases makes it overwhelmingly likely that reliance on the death penalty will lead to the execution of innocent defendants.
  • In practice, the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Pursuit of the death penalty is an inordinately expensive gesture, inconsistent with the sensible allocation of resources in a criminal justice system already laboring under great financial strain.

These systemic flaws compel us to speak openly against capital punishment, even when the facts of a particular case do not appear to raise questions about innocence or discrimination.

As many of you may know, the BBA rarely comments on specific cases.  But in the case of Boston Marathon bombing, we did. And I have to say that I’m really proud that we chose to emphasize our death penalty position in the context of what is arguably the most watched trial in recent history.

In the weeks that have followed our public call for the Department of Justice to take the death penalty off the table in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I have had many conversations with people about our position.  I have given interviews with NPR and spoken to reporters of all kinds, have debated the issue with David Yas in the podcast Unbillable Boston, and have debated a Boston Herald reporter in a BBC radio broadcast.

I think what has struck me about these discussions is how receptive people are to hearing the reasons behind why we came to oppose the death penalty decades ago and continue that opposition today: reasons that are rooted in data and focused on the fair administration of justice.

Even when we’ve agreed to disagree, the discussions have been civil and respectful, which can be a challenge when emotions are running high.

We don’t yet know what the sentence will be in the Boston Marathon trial, but I’m proud of what the BBA has added to the public discourse on this issue, and I’m grateful that – in receiving this award from the oldest abolition organization in the nation – the dedicated volunteers of MCADP feel we have added value as well.

PILP Takes Up the Fight Against Recidivism

If you follow the public service activities of the BBA, you probably already know all about our Public Interest Leadership Program, affectionately nicknamed ‘PILP.’ PILP is just one of the ways the BBA fosters leadership and engagement in public service among young attorneys. Participants receive guidance and mentorship from BBA leaders as they plan and execute a community service project over the course of a year. The PILP classes are tight-knit groups, and past members are always proud of the experience and glad to lend a hand to the current class.

PILP is now in its eleventh cycle and at this week’s Council meeting, the current class – PILP 11 – presented their proposed idea to work on over the coming months. I’m excited to share more information about their project with you. Not only is it a great idea in its own right, but it also builds on and expands the work of a previous PILP class, meaning that it will really deepen our overall commitment to assisting the courts in a very important area: preventing recidivism.

In his recent State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Gants of the SJC said, “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism.” We at the BBA wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. That’s why when PILP 9, the class of 2012-2013, brought their idea to implement reentry readiness workshops for probationers in collaboration with the federal district court, they were enthusiastically supported.

Their Community Reentry Readiness Project has been a huge success. After it was overwhelmingly well-received in its first year by workshop attendees, who attended through the Court Assisted Recover Effort (CARE) and Reentry: Empowering Successful Todays and Responsible Tomorrows (RESTART) probation programs, the court requested that the BBA continue the program, which has recently started its second iteration.

PILP 11’s project proposes to bring the community reentry readiness workshops to the state courts – specifically to the Boston Municipal Court in Roxbury through “CHOICE,” an intensive supervised probation program for young adult offenders. The participants in CHOICE are between the ages of 18 and 24, and most have served a short, probation-only sentence. With the support of these workshops, we hope to intervene early in their lives and encourage them to avoid future infractions. As the presenting members of the PILP class explained, these probationers are at a turning point where they can change the path that they are on; the information and the support provided in these workshops could make the difference in which path they choose. We all have a stake in their success and, using evidence-based practices, we can promote proven efforts to achieve that success and reduce recidivism.

I’d like to applaud the current PILP class for responding to this request from the courts, which really strengthens our relationship with the judiciary, and for presenting their plan so thoughtfully and thoroughly. It’s clear that they have carefully considered the needs of these young men and women– for example, adding a workshop on student financial aid – and I’m confident that they will succeed in their endeavor.

The Council unanimously agreed to accept PILP 11’s proposal, so they will be implementing the workshops in Roxbury shortly. Look for more updates on their progress in the coming months!

Helping Our Children Through Education Advocacy

Anyone who thinks special education advocacy is a niche issue should meet Marlies Spanjaard, an attorney affiliated with the EdLaw Project, an initiative of the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services – Children & Family and Youth Advocacy Divisions. You’d be surprised – shocked, even – to learn some of the facts she gave me recently.

For example, did you know that only about half of Massachusetts third-grade students score proficient or above in reading on the MCAS? Or that two-thirds of children who can’t read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up imprisoned at some point in their lives? Yet in spite of this, only 17% of students in grade K-12 across the state receive special education services.

My background in education, particularly special education, has been an important influence on how I approach the legal profession. Working with children is a powerful reminder that there are members of our society whose voices are largely unheard and whose livelihood and success often depend on the assistance of others. Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable, and when it comes to their education, it is our responsibility to ensure that their best interests are protected.

With this in mind, I have a particular interest in promoting this cause alongside the BBA’s many other public service initiatives. I was therefore pleased to see that Marlies Spanjaard will lead a Special Education Advocacy pro bono training next week. While I hope you will consider attending any of the many pro bono training that the BBA holds, I focus my blog on this one because it’s an area in which attorneys may not be aware that they can make such a substantive difference.

The failure to deliver special education services to children in need has broad consequences, which come with a heavy price tag for the individuals involved, and also for society as a whole. Children who fall behind are more likely to end up as part of the criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Department of Youth Services states, “annually, there are approximately 6,000 juveniles arraigned in court on criminal charges.”  According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, sending a person to a correctional facility costs taxpayers almost $50,000 per prisoner per year.

This is where the early assistance of an attorney in securing any necessary special education resources can really make a difference. Our pro bono training on Monday will prepare attorneys to help a family navigate the legal system and advocate for them – whether it’s an issue of guiding them through the special education eligibility process or advocating for specific services that a school district may not agree that the child needs. Rather than trying to solve the problem once the child has already started to fall behind, an attorney can work with the family to support their child more immediately after a need has been identified. For low-income families whose children are at risk, this can absolutely change the trajectory of that child’s future.

We talk a lot about pro bono and public service work at the BBA, and we do so because there are so many ways to get involved and it is so important to offer our skills in this way. Particularly around this time of year, I think it’s extremely fitting to think about ways that we can give back to help those who may be less fortunate, or less able to defend themselves. With a new year and a fresh start coming up, there is no better time to consider expanding our commitment to serving others.

An Update from the Trial Court

Last week was a busy one at the BBA. Not only did I spend Tuesday as Principal for the Day, but later that evening, the BBA Council had the chance to hear directly from Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence – the dynamic duo who lead the Trial Court department. We know that they have extremely busy schedules, so we appreciate the time they took to discuss the status of the courts and give us a sneak peek at what might be in store for the future.

One Mission: Justice with Dignity and Speed,” the court’s strategic plan, has been in place for over a year under Chief Justice Carey and Court Administrator Spence, and through its emphasis on collaboration both internally and with other outside agencies, it has moved the courts forward in leaps and bounds. While change is still ongoing, there are a few significant updates from the discussion that I’d like to share as we continue our own advocacy for the courts:

  • Specialty Courts: The number of specialty courts has been rapidly expanding and is sure to continue to do so; in fact, a portion of the Trial Court’s funding for the year was specially earmarked by the Legislature, indicating lawmakers’ support for the specialty courts. Chief Justice Carey was emphatic about the great work and successes these programs achieve, challenging all of us to attend a specialty court graduation and not cry. One year into a three-year plan, eight new specialty courts have already been added, and, by the end of the year, we are slated to see a total of thirty-five. In addition to expansion, the Trial Court is working to standardize specialty court operation and study outcomes so that we can better measure their effectiveness. This can help us find ways to maximize the effectiveness of the specialty courts in response to specific challenges, such as the opiate crisis, and ultimately reduce rates of recidivism.
  • Technology: This is another area in which we can expect continual change from the courts as they update their systems and move toward becoming more streamlined, efficient, and user-friendly. They are moving to an all-digital system and are aiming to become 90% digitized within the next few years. Already, we can expect to see new features being set into place. For example, in Bristol and Barnstable Counties, attorneys can already find dockets and documents online. In January, they will implement e-filing for civil cases in certain demonstration sites and will soon begin to offer digital preservation of documents. The courts will also completely install MassCourts, the electronic case access tool, for the Superior Court by June. The Trial Court is committed to making its operations more user-friendly and accessible to the general public.
  • Security Screening: Under the guidance of their Director of Security Jeff Morrow – formerly of NCIS – the court has identified security issues in the courthouses and is working to address them. It may mean stricter security measures for all, but this will likely be a worthwhile trade-off for the added peace of mind. I found this particularly striking as the courts are hoping to maintain a dialogue with the bar to figure out the most effective way to ensure the safety of all who enter any courthouse.

We also heard more about the court service center that recently opened at the Brooke Courthouse, which has assisted over 3,000 litigants since June. New court service centers are in the works for all major courthouses across the Commonwealth. We are proud that our most recent Public Interest Leadership class had the opportunity to work with the courts to develop materials for the center and help it to launch – it’s a great example of how the bench and bar can collaborate on issues of mutual interest. It is a privilege to work with powerhouses like Chief Justice Carey and Court Administrator Spence, and we’re looking forward to lending our support as the year progresses. This stated mission of “justice with dignity and speed” is one that we share wholeheartedly.

Meeting Community Needs Through the BBA Lawyer Referral Service

The BBA works hard to make sure that it offers relevant, high-quality resources to those who need them – not just to its members, but also to people in the community who are seeking legal assistance. As we know from the recent report of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, there is an enormous unmet need for legal aid in this state. The BBA recognizes that the increasing number of pro se litigants imposes significant burdens on our courts, and affects the ability of our judges to deliver justice. The BBA is committed to ensuring access to justice for everyone who comes before our courts, and including by assisting unrepresented litigants find lawyers.

With this in mind, I recently paid a visit to the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service (LRS). The LRS is the BBA’s largest public service to members of the community, and is entirely staffed and supervised by the BBA. In a nutshell, the LRS operates a help line to match prospective clients with participating attorneys. Individuals seeking legal assistance can contact the LRS by telephone or through an online form to receive a referral to an appropriate attorney, legal services organization, or government agency.

Almost 300 attorneys are currently registered with the LRS, covering nearly 350 areas of the law. In order to ensure that its referrals are of a high quality, the BBA requires that participating attorneys meet certain requirements, including, in some subject matters that are more complex, a minimum number of years of experience. Attorneys may charge their usual rates and remit a portion to the BBA. Attorneys also have the option to make themselves available for reduced-fee cases, by which moderate to low-income clients are charged a maximum of $85/hour. These reduced fee referrals are a huge help in allowing individuals who may not be able to receive civil legal aid but cannot pay market rates for attorneys’ fees.

For even more perspective, let me highlight a few key facts about the LRS.

Quick Stats about the LRS:

  • The LRS received over 8,000 inquiries from prospective clients seeking representation in the past year.
  • Of those, 1,205 contacts came from online referral requests – more than 20% higher than the prior year.
  • Over the past year, 39% of LRS callers have been eligible for the reduced-fee panel, which has allowed the LRS to connect those unable to pay traditional fees for legal assistance to an affordable solution.
  • 60% of the attorneys who participate in the LRS also participate in the reduced-fee panel.

The Bigger Picture: Responding to Community Needs

As you can see, the LRS does incredible work on a daily basis. The service is personal and tailored to each client’s legal needs, and involves much more than just pulling names from a list. It truly has the capacity to change people’s lives every day.

But the LRS also has the ability to respond to the shifting needs of an evolving community, even in emergency situations. This flexibility allows it to be an even greater service to the community. For example, the LRS’s close connections to the legal community and its solid infrastructure allowed the BBA to establish the Marathon Assistance Project shortly after the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Through this project, more than 80 individuals and small businesses have received much-needed legal assistance in the aftermath of this tragedy. The LRS continues to offer assistance to these victims as their legal needs evolve.

More recently, the Military Legal Help Line was transferred over to the LRS. They have been able to expand the line and draw from a full panel of attorneys dedicated to assisting military personnel, veterans, and family members with their unique legal needs. As a result, the LRS has been able to connect 161% more members of this population with legal assistance than in the prior year. In even more exciting news, you may have seen earlier this week that four law firms have signed on to accept pro bono referrals through the Military Legal Help Line for clients who do not qualify for traditional free legal services, but cannot afford the fees of a lawyer. These partnerships will significantly improve our ability to assist this portion of the population.

With this kind of proactive approach, the potential of the LRS is unlimited. We are looking forward to exploring new ways that this valuable service to the community can grow and develop even more as the community itself continues to change.