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Legal Aid Groups Think Bold to Fill Rural Gaps

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Legal Aid Groups Think Bold to Fill Rural Gaps

"Living in a vast state where wide swaths of land are unreachable by road, many Alaskans lack regular access to police, courts and the legal services that concentrate in urban areas. To combat the problem, the Alaska Legal Services Corp. had to accept one fundamental fact.

"We're never going to be able to bridge the justice gap by just using lawyers," Nikole Nelson, the group's director, told a room full of lawyers last week. "It's not going to work in our rural communities."

Such was the theme in session after session on bridging rural America's justice gap during last week's Equal Justice Conference, held in Louisville, Kentucky, by the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid and Defenders Association.

Legal aid practitioners and researchers proclaimed the need to think outside the box and meet people where their needs are, especially in the rural communities that make up 20% of the U.S. population and just 2% of the U.S. population of lawyers.

Nelson knows firsthand the struggle of serving rural places, considering Alaska has just 1 person per 1.2 square miles. She said that reaching most of the state's 229 federally recognized Native American tribes requires transportation by plane, boat or snowmobile.

Faced with those hurdles, Nelson said she realized her organization needed to use an existing support network that already supplies many rural residents with social services: Alaska's tribal health care system.

"It became very clear that if we could work with our health care providers, we could have a much stronger footprint," Nelson said.

Using "Justice For All" grant money from the National Center for State Courts and the Public Welfare Foundation, ALSC placed AmeriCorps members at six tribally operated health care facilities to address civil issues that can harm health, like family disputes.

After one year, the placements showed a 6-to-1 return on investment with an estimated savings of nearly $300,000 in costs related to emergency shelters and domestic violence..."

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