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Senate Votes on Crucial Justice Funding

Vote will determine funding for civil legal services and prisoner re-entry programs, and the creation of a commission to study our nation’s criminal justice system.

  • Molly Alarcon
October 19, 2011

The Senate will vote today and tomorrow on an appropriations bill that will influence two important federally supported programs: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which provides free civil legal aid to the poor, and Second Chance, a program that supports prisoner re-entry programs around the country. In addition, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia will introduce an amendment to create the National Criminal Justice Commission to study the country’s criminal justice system and make non-binding recommendations to Congress and the President.

The Legal Services Corporation distributes funds to legal aid programs around the country to assist low-income Americans facing civil legal problems, including foreclosure, domestic violence, and child custody disputes. LSC is meagerly funded by the federal government and, as a result, cannot keep up with demand for legal services. As the Brennan Center reported, programs around the country have been forced to lay off staff and cut back on services at a moment when a record number of Americans — 67 million — are eligible for LSC-funded help. In addition, a 1996 restriction bars LSC grantees from operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. The restriction bars grantees from using state, local and private funds for critical forms of representation, including class actions and legislative and administrative advocacy. In many states, justice planners have had to set up entirely separate organizations and law offices, funded by state and local public funders and private charitable sources, to do the work that LSC-funded programs cannot do, resulting in wasteful duplication of overhead, personnel and administrative costs. Read a short primer on the “non-LSC funds restriction,” here, and a full report by Rebekah Diller and Emily Savner on the restrictions here.

Currently, the Senate appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies preserves a minimal level of funding for Legal Services Corporation, and includes a provision to remove restrictions on how LSC grantees can use non-federal funds. This is good news. The Brennan Center has advocated lifting the LSC ban on non-federal funding since its adoption in the mid-1990s. For the third year in a row, the Senate bill’s inclusion of a short line to remove these restrictions, which was approved by the Appropriations Committee, is a significant accomplishment for legal aid supporters. While the Brennan Center would have liked to see funding for LSC increased to help the organization meet unmet demand, the funding level in the Senate bill is preferable to the House version, which includes only $300 million (as opposed to the Senate’s nearly $400 million). We urge the Senate to support the Legal Services Corporation clauses of the current spending bill.

The proposed appropriations bill also defunds the Second Chance Act, which is an unfortunate set-back for criminal justice reform advocates. As The New York Times editorial board noted, the Senate has its “priorities backward” on matters of criminal justice: in addition to removing all funding for Second Chance, it has proposed a $300 million increase in funding for the federal Bureau of Prisons to build new prisons. This would be a huge step backward, and the Brennan Center urges the Senate to restore funding for Second Chance.

The United States incarcerates more people — per capita and in total numbers — than any other country in the world, and since 1980, the federal prison population has increased 700 percent at a cost increase of 1,700 percent. Our criminal justice system has not been systematically reviewed since the Johnson administration in the 1960s. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which will be included as an amendment on the Senate spending bill, would create a blue ribbon commission to review the criminal justice system and recommend consensus-based, bipartisan reforms. Its passage would be an important first step toward developing evidence-based and cost-effective policies to increase public safety and improve our justice system.

Call your Senator today to voice your support for the Legal Services Corporation, the Second Chance Act, and the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.