Civil Legal Aid and the Judiciary -- We Need Your Help

The budget process is in full swing.  The House Ways and Means Committee released its FY2016 budget proposal last week, generously providing more funding for many of our line items of interest than the Governor’s budget, despite facing a $1.8 billion deficit, but it is still not enough.  Here is a brief breakdown (for more see last week’s Issue Spot blog post).

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
• Request: $25,000,000
• Governor’s Budget: $14,731,500
• House Ways and Means Budget: $17,000,000 

Representative Ruth Balser has filed Amendment #440 asking for an additional $5 million.  If adopted, it would bring the total MLAC line item to $22,000,000.  The amendment is currently co-sponsored by an unprecedented 83 Representatives, more than half of the 160 member House.  If you see your Representative on that list, call them to express your thanks and ask them to continue pushing for the amendment.  If you don’t see their name on that list, click here to ask them to sign on. 

Trial Court
• Request: $642,600,000 + Modules
• Governor’s Budget: $603,300,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $620,533,116

As you can see above, the Trial Court is being funded at far below its maintenance amount.  Amendment #355, filed by Representative John Fernandes, seeks an additional $9.5 million, $7.5 million for the Trial Court generally, and $2 million for the addition of eight specialty court sessions.  If the Trial Court does not receive this funding, it will likely have to lay off around 160 individuals, resulting in decreased service at courthouses already stretched thin.

Amendment #760 filed by Representative James Cantwell seeks $1.2 million in a new line item for high-intensity probation supervision programs, such as the HOPE/MORR project.  This project is based on a very successful program conducted in other states for individuals at a high risk of re-offending which provides probationers with prompt sanctions for violations.

While Trial Court employment is down 20% over the last 15 years, the Probation Department is down nearly 33%.  Chief Justice Gants explained that this is one of the biggest problems facing the courts, because probation officers play such an important role in the justice system and they are being tasked with more than ever before.  With fewer resources and increased caseloads, probation officers are forced to spend less time with each probationer, making the Chief Justice fear that it may only be a matter of time before something catastrophic happens.

Supreme Judicial Court (SJC)
• Request: $12,600,000
• Governor’s Budget: $11,554,036
• House Ways and Means Budget: $12,020,560

Chief Justice Gants also drew our attention to the SJC budget, which is also facing a budget crisis because it was level funded by both the Governor and the House Ways and Means Committee.  AS a result the SJC is seeking an additional $237,689 in Amendment #358 filed by Representative John Fernandes.  If the SJC does not receive this additional funding, it is likely that it too will face staff layoffs.  A couple hundred thousand dollars is a miniscule amount in a $38 billion budget, but it could make a huge difference in the functioning of the SJC.  For example, Chief Justice Gants told the BBA Council that without this funding, technology advances such as e-filing would likely face significant delays.

As Chief Justice Gants explained to the BBA Council, he often hears from Legislators that the judiciary has no constituency.  While elected officials hear from individuals in their districts on other budget issues, very few call or email about the Courts.  It is up to lawyers to lead the way on this issue.  We urge you to contact your Representative and let them know how important these amendments are for justice in the Commonwealth.  Don’t know who to call?  Look up your Representative here .