Bridging the Gap: A Practical Guide to Civil-Defender Collaboration

By McGregor Smyth.

Vicky G. received a Section 8 Existing Housing Voucher for ten years. The prosecutor and local public housing authority now allege that over a six-year period she failed to report that her boyfriend was living in the apartment and that she underreported her income. She is charged with grand larceny and filing a false instrument.

Adam R. is 16 years old. He lives in a public housing apartment with his grandmother and three young brothers and sisters. He is arrested four blocks from home for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The local housing authority brings an eviction proceeding against his entire family.

Lilly A. has two small children. She is arrested in her apartment for passing bad checks—a felony. The police call the local child welfare office, which takes the children into custody. Because of the circumstances of the case, Lilly is likely to spend eighteen to twenty-four months in prison.

At first glance, these clients present daunting problems. They have fallen into an alarming gap between criminal and civil legal aid, a gap that both criminal defense attorneys and civil legal aid lawyers are usually loath to cross. Most public defenders do not think beyond the termination of the pending criminal case. Many civil legal aid attorneys would like to think that their client population has little contact with the criminal justice system. And never the twain shall meet.

Both sides of this divide can and should endeavor to bridge it, but in this article I specifically address civil legal services organizations and their staff. By widening your focus—looking at the whole client and the client’s community— you can see that the same systemic problems inextricably connect low-income clients, regardless of whether their most immediate legal problem is civil or criminal. The criminal justice system inflicts damage on low-income communities generally, not just on the individuals charged with crimes. Those who pass through it have, as a result, limited access to employment, housing, and benefits and thus a reduced ability to contribute to their families and communities. Indeed, over 28 percent of adults in the United States have a criminal record. No data are available on the corresponding percentage of low-income adults who have criminal records. The number is almost certainly higher than in the general population; 62 percent of all state felony arrests are of poor people who will be convicted of a crime. Consider how many families are affected as a result of this statistic. You might find that your client communities overlap to a much greater extent than you ever knew.

Read the full article here: Bridging the Gap