Criminal Justice Reform Will Fall Short If We Fail to Invest in Civil Legal Aid

Billy Corriher, Rebecca Vallas
October 27, 2015

Both the House and the Senate have introduced bipartisan legislation that would begin to overhaul the criminal justice system, but unless policymakers also invest in civil legal aid to support formerly incarcerated people who are re-entering their communities, efforts to dismantle mass incarceration are doomed to fail.

Financial debts and other obstacles can trap returning citizens in poverty and be a path to re-incarceration for those who are unable to pay. Barriers to successful reentry are a big reason why more than two-thirds of formerly incarcerated individuals are rearrested within three years of release, many for crimes of survival.

Civil legal aid attorneys play a critical role in dismantling the cycle of re-incarceration. Unfortunately, funding for civil legal aid has long fallen far short of what is needed to meet demand. As a result, for every client served by legal aid, a second person in need of services is turned away. Overall, less than 20 percent of low-income Americans’ civil legal needs are being met.

While sentencing and prison reforms are key aspects of building a fair and equitable criminal justice system, these reforms are not enough. Reversing the nation’s decades-long trend of mass incarceration will also require removing unnecessary barriers to employment, housing, education, and more. This means ensuring access to critical civil legal aid services.

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