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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What my students are up to...

Today and tomorrow I’m going to do something a little different: instead of featuring some of the stuff I’m thinking about and working on, I thought I’d feature two groups of former students working at ArchCity Defenders and the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project doing the sort of work providing legal services at the bottom end—to the people that the legal market mostly overlooks or is too overstretched to adequately serve.  These are the sorts of clients that are struggling with issues of homelessness exacerbated by low-level criminal charges that preclude them from accessing state services; indigents facing stints in jail because of their inability to pay child support (and the prosecutor’s unwillingness, without legal intervention, to modify the payment plan), and immigrants seeking help with their legal status.  Strikingly, the problems besetting low-income clients are mostly legally minor but devastating on a personal and community level, and these problems transcend legal categories, requiring what ArchCity Defender Executive Director Thomas Harvey calls a ‘holistic legal practice’ that emphasizes ‘interdisciplinary’ approaches to the law and legal services. 

The ArchCity Defenders is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit law firm that strives to prevent and end homelessness by providing holistic criminal and civil legal services in collaboration with a network of social service organizations, local governments, private businesses, and colleges and universities.  Here’s a little bit about ArchCity Defenders in their own words. 

Thomas Harvey (Executive Director), was inspired to create ArchCity Defenders because:

 I was shocked at how the criminal justice system dehumanized people, saw that traditional roles within the system offered limited opportunities to change that, and didn't want to exacerbate the already entrenched dehumanization.  As a third year law student, I interned at the public defender through Saint Louis University's clinic program with Professor Sue McGraugh.  

I saw people chained together and brought into the courtroom for arraignment on non-violent crimes.  My role was to conduct intake and determine economic eligibility for the public defender.  If you had a minimum wage job working more than 20 hours per week, owned a car or had previously posted a bond over $500, you were ineligible.  No one suggested these folks weren't poor; they just weren't poor enough for a public defender.  If you feel into that gap, you were sent back to jail.  Although ostensibly the purpose was to give the person time to get a lawyer, the effect was to drive them further into poverty and likely homelessness.  While sitting in jail for a month, these individuals lost jobs if they had them and lost housing if they had it.  When they returned to court at a later date and reported no job and no housing, they were determined to meet the eligibility requirements for the public defender.  I thought there was a need for legal services that prevented the marginal from being pushed further and further into poverty and homelessness.

***

An Article in the St. Louis Beacon describes some of the conditions that inspired Harvey and his co-founders, Michael John Voss and John McAnnar.  A central issue in Missouri is that the state precludes state legal services from providing the sort of holistic and interdisciplinary services that ArchCity Defenders champion.  Public defenders “could address a person's criminal charges but were statutorily restricted from handling civil charges that often exacerbated the clients' problems.”  But a central feature of the  criminal justice system is that it is a system mostly for indigents, and disproportionately those suffering from mental illnesses or substance abuse problems, and Harvey, Voss and McAnnar were struck by the fact that these problems could not be handled in one location or by one source, but that “treatment, which was ‘cobbled together’ across agencies,” resulting in “waiting lists and maze of referrals that can face poor people needing legal help,” making it hard for poor, ill or addicted, unrepresented clients to keep track of their conditions of release, or even afford the time away from work to attend to their legal issues.

To set up ArchCity, Harvey got together with two fellow students, Michael John Voss and John McAnnar.  As he tells it they:

were also doing clinical work during their third year. We all saw a need for services.  I decided I was going to start doing this work after graduation and talked Voss and McAnnar into helping me.  We did some research and found the Bronx Defenders in New York did the kind of work we wanted to do so I called Robin Steinberg, the Founder and Executive Director at the Bronx Defenders and asked her if I could emulate her model here in St. Louis.  She was exceptionally generous with her time and advice.  After that, we just started talking to people we knew about what we needed and how they could help us.  The St. Louis legal community was very generous and we couldn't have done any of this without them. 

We talked to Professors McGraugh and Miller and many people in the legal community who were helpful in guiding our early steps.  We worked with Washington University and got some free help with our 501 (c) (3) application.  Marie Kenyon from Catholic Legal Assistance Ministries helped us get a donation to pay for the costs of that application.  

At the end of the day though, we just started offering our services.  We took on clients and started helping people with no funding.  We knew we had something because the demand was overwhelming and we could not keep up.  Although it has turned out ok for us, it's not what I would advise today. All three of us had full time employment outside of the ArchCity Defenders to support us as well not to mention very supportive and gainfully employed wives. 

 We started the ArchCity Defenders because of our law school experience at Saint Louis University (SLU) which gave us the combination of blackletter law, theory, clinical opportunities, quality instruction and freedom necessary to create the ArchCity Defenders.  We had the chance to discuss what the law is, what it should be, what lawyers should be doing, and how our role as repeat players in the system hurts or helps the clients.  SLU isn't the only law school providing this experience and I know we aren't the only ones who took advantage of it.  However, if law school becomes a factory that only produces lawyers who focus solely on how the law is right now instead of how it should be, law school will have failed on a massive scale. 

*** 

As Harvey points out, a major issue for a startup law firm like this is funding:  

We have done this work for free for three years and have now won a major contract with the City of St. Louis that will be announced on February 26, 2013.  However, even with that win, the contract requires matching funds so a win is not a simple win.  We need now and will always need money from supporters of our work.  However, another major challenge is spreading the word about how holistic defense helps the client, helps the community and is the right thing to do.  In short, there are huge benefits to holistic legal defense that extend beyond the individual to the community at large in social and economic ways.  We need help spreading that information as much as anything else.

Readers can donate directly at archcitydefenders.org at any time or write us with a donation.  Readers can also point us in the direction of grants and other funding opportunities for our organization as that is always welcome.  Finally, we need partners in the academy to help us strengthen our economic arguments.  If there are folks interested in helping us out with research, we would greatly appreciate it.  I can be reached any time at tharvey@archcitydefenders.org.

Posted by Eric Miller on February 27, 2013 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

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