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Point of View: Justice Reform in Oklahoma Must Include Civil Legal Assistance (OK) (Op-ed)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Point of View: Justice Reform in Oklahoma Must Include Civil Legal Assistance

"Imagine living at or below the poverty line of $850 or less a month; now add involvement with the criminal justice system that adds fees or fines of over $2,000 that must be paid within 18 months. Failure to pay could prevent an expungement at the successful completion of a deferred sentence, result in jail time for failure to pay, and perhaps lead to an eviction or job loss due to a criminal conviction. Now, imagine navigating fines/fees and eviction court on your own.

For those facing cases like these without representation, it’s like climbing a mountain, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs.

We are leaders of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, a statewide nonprofit organization that provides civil legal assistance to low-income Oklahomans. We believe an element critical to successful criminal justice reform has been omitted from the debate on that subject in Oklahoma: the vital importance of civil legal services. Changes to criminal laws, sentencing, problem-solving courts, support to public defenders and cultural shifts within prosecutors’ offices are only part of reform. True criminal justice reform cannot happen without the component of civil legal assistance.

Family members and neighbors who have engaged in criminal behaviors need access to civil legal services to successfully manage the collateral issues that may have led to their involvement with the criminal justice system in the first place, or that keep them involved with that system. For example, parents experiencing poverty may steal food to feed their family. An uninsured person unable to access mental health care, including necessary costly medications or counseling to identify and process trauma, may turn to drugs or alcohol to stifle the pain, or may have difficulty keeping a job.

Civil legal services attorneys represent persons facing homelessness due to eviction, obtain identification for persons unable to secure a job because they have no identification needed for employment, and help persons obtain social security benefits so they can access health insurance and housing. Civil legal assistance can also secure pardons and expungements that can offer forgiveness (pardons) and a clean slate (expungement), removing barriers to school, jobs and the social stigma that comes with the criminal justice system..."

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