President Bush recently declared, in proposing a new Prison Reentry Initiative during his State of the Union speech, that “[t]his year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. . . . America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” Yet many people reentering society from prison find the path to a better life blocked by numerous barriers.
Reentry & Civil Legal Aid – One important, but often overlooked, barrier is a federal law that prohibits people in prison from securing legal assistance in routine civil matters from private nonprofit legal aid programs that are willing to dedicate their own private funds to this assistance, but that happen to receive a portion of their funds from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC).
The civil legal problems that people in prison need to resolve may seem small to some, but they can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure upon reentry. These problems can include: lost visitation rights; lost child custody and parental rights; ruined credit histories; the loss of a family car or home; and lost public benefits, including health care and income supports. Left unresolved, these and similar legal problems can make it impossible for persons returning home to reunite with families, successfully complete rehabilitation programs, secure good jobs, obtain affordable housing, or even qualify for vocational training and educational loans.
Helping Incarcerated Mothers & Their Children – For example, when mothers are incarcerated, they often face enormous problems securing visitation rights with their children. They can even risk losing their parental rights altogether unless they can obtain the services of a civil legal aid lawyer. The result can be devastating for both mother and child. Studies show that continued contact with family members both during and after incarceration can increase the likelihood of rehabilitation, foster reintegration into the community, and ultimately reduce recidivism. Reliable family contact can also soften the blow to minor children when a mother is incarcerated, increasing the chances that these children will do better in school and have an easier time in foster care should they enter it.
The Federal Barrier to Privately Funded Civil Legal Aid – Unfortunately, federal law routinely denies people planning for reentry, and in need of legal help, access to privately funded legal assistance. Since 1996, Congress has prohibited independent civil legal aid programs receiving federal funds through LSC from using their own private, state and local funds to provide assistance in civil cases to people in prison.
This federal “private money restriction” effectively prohibits more than 140 civil legal aid programs across the nation from using any of their more than $300 million of non-federal funding to help people in prison overcome obstacles that interfere with reentry planning. And it prohibits private individuals, charitable foundations, and state and local governments from funding these experienced lawyers to help people in prison plan for reentry.
The Policy Solution – Federal law should permit independent LSC grantees to use their own private funds to provide a full range of legal assistance to low-income individuals and families, including people in prison who are planning to return to their home neighborhoods. Removing this barrier to privately funded legal services, along with removing many other barriers to reentry that are imposed by other laws – including legal restrictions on employment, parental rights, public benefits, housing, education, and voting rights – is integral to ensuring that people leaving prison are able to return to their home neighborhoods successfully and safely.
Following is one individual’s story further illustrating how prospects for the successful reentry of people in prison can be improved by removal of the LSC private money restriction.
The Story of Christopher J. – People in prison who reenter society with poor credit histories can encounter difficulties securing a good job, renting an apartment, buying a car, and financing an education. And without the help of a privately funded civil legal aid lawyer, it can be difficult – if not impossible – for some people in prison to resolve the underlying legal and financial problems that can ruin both their credit histories and their efforts to turn their lives around.
Take the case of Christopher J., a 36-year-old former prisoner in Alaska who reentered society in 2002. While in prison, Christopher decided to turn his life around by taking college correspondence courses and by saving the small amount of money he earned working as a janitor. Since returning home, he has supported himself by working full-time while he studies to earn a college degree in Computer Engineering. He now has only 17 classes to go. But because of one negative entry on his credit report, which appeared through no fault of his own during the time he was in prison, Christopher is disqualified from receiving a state educational loan that he sorely needs to help pay tuition.
The negative entry arose after Christopher’s neighbor reneged on her written promise to make the remaining loan payments on Christopher’s truck, which she agreed to make in exchange for the right to use his truck. The neighbor initially made the promised payments, but when Christopher entered prison she abruptly stopped paying (even though she continued to use the truck). Christopher’s loan company started dunning him for the final three payments, which he was unable to make while in prison. The company’s eventual repossession of the truck has left a negative entry on Christopher’s credit report that has impaired his otherwise clean credit history.
A privately funded civil legal aid lawyer could have helped Christopher by seeking a court order, if necessary, enforcing the contract with his neighbor. But there are not enough private lawyers in Alaska available to help low-income people like Christopher.
Moreover, since 1996, Congress has prohibited the excellent lawyers that specialize in consumer law at LSC-funded Alaska Legal Services Corporation from using their own private, state and local funds to provide legal assistance to any incarcerated person in civil litigation. As a result, Christopher was ineligible to receive their assistance when he needed it most, and now he must strive to overcome yet another obstacle to his effort to finance his education and to turn his life around.