Monthly Archives: May 2010

When Budget Cuts Fly in Face of Constitutional Requirements

The Senate released its budget recommendations earlier this week.  Amendments are due today and the budget will be considered by the full Senate starting on Wednesday May 26th.  Like the House version of the budget, the Senate did not rely on any new revenue or withdrawals from the Rainy Day Fund.  That means budget cuts are going to be felt everywhere.

While Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (“MLAC”) made it through 3 big hurdles– the Governor’s budget, the House budget and the Senate budget – with level funding in place, it’s still not over.  Senator Panagiotakos has emphasized that revenues can still be reduced — making more cuts necessary if tax revenues for April don’t hold up.  The other source of MLAC’s revenue is from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (“IOLTA”) which has continued to feel the devastating effects of the recession with income from this source falling 66% from FY08.  This means that grants to legal aid programs will be cut.

The Senate’s budget was more favorable to the Trial Court than the House budget, but the Senate’s appropriation of $544.3, is $15.1million, or 2.7% less than FY10.  This is not enough for the courts to meet the rising need for access to the courts.  This will undoubtedly mean even slower-functioning courts and delays in administering justice to the 42,000 citizens who use our state courts each day.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (“CPCS”) did not fair as well in the Senate as they did in the House.  CPCS was funded at $166 million which is about $26 million less than what they got in the House budget.  The line item that was most underfunded for CPCS was the private counsel compensation line item which was funded at $28 million less than what the House provided.  We are talking about the attorneys who represent the majority of indigent criminal defendants, children and families, and people with mental illness.

Massachusetts is obligated to provide competent legal counsel to every indigent person charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment, and CPCS is the state agency that manages these responsibilities.  The size of the budget needed to fulfill this obligation is dictated by forces outside CPCS’s control, namely the number of cases that are assigned to the public and private divisions of CPCS by Massachusetts courts.

In order to ensure that private attorneys can continue to provide critical representation in our courts, the Senate needs to restore funding in the private counsel compensation line item to the amount that the House funded them.  Without adequate funding for private bar advocates, we will likely face a crisis of the sort which occurred in 2005, when hundreds of people were jailed without counsel because of inadequate funding for CPCS.

We know, the Commonwealth is facing tough economic circumstances and these are difficult funding decisions but fulfilling Constitutional requirements is not a discretionary item.

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Homestead Reform Legislation Is Way Overdue

It seems so easy — you buy a home, pay $35 and file a “Declaration of Homestead” to protect it from creditors up to the amounts set by law.  But it’s not so simple and it’s actually confusing.  While it seems like a no-brainer for any homeowner in Massachusetts, too many people fail to take advantage of this important benefit.

A quick survey of my friends revealed that some had never heard of a homestead declaration, and those that did had only a vague understanding of this rudimentary consumer protection tool.  The reason being is that the current law, Chapter 188 §§ 1-10 is ambiguous and unclear at best.

For several years now, the BBA has been working – along with the MBA and REBA – to update the Massachusetts Homestead Exemption.  This effort intensified during the BBA presidency of the late M. Ellen Carpenter, a bankruptcy lawyer, and is more important now than ever before.

Quite simply, a declaration of homestead is protection for the equity in your residence from most creditors up to $500,000 in the event you are sued.  The Homestead bill that is currently being considered by the legislature, S 2406, will modernize and clarify the existing law.  More importantly it will eliminate the requirement that an actual filing be necessary to ensure that a homeowner is protected.

If Homestead reform legislation is enacted, this important protection would be automatic — up to $125,000 for every Massachusetts homeowner. If you’ve filed a Declaration of Homestead that protection would go up to $500,000.

BBA leaders have testified on behalf of homestead legislation reform at numerous public hearings.  We continue to press our case with staff and legislators.  When legislation to update the homestead statute was taken up in the Senate chamber in late April, it was missing the essential automatic protection provision.  Senator Cynthia Creem filed an amendment to restore the automatic provision and the bill was engrossed.  It is now in House Ways and Means.

Looking ahead towards the last weeks of formal sessions, the legislature is still working on gambling, economic development, sentencing reform, and the state budget. The BBA will continue to persist in its advocacy efforts.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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CORI Reform Is Just a Start — Sentencing Reform Is a Must

The BBA retains a spirit of dogged optimism as we wait for sentencing reform.  With just three months left in this two year legislative session and the Senate preparing to release their budget in less than two weeks, the legislature is moving closer to meaningful sentencing reform.  There have been years of protests, legislative proposals and public hearings.  But the sad truth is that the current system makes it extremely difficult for former offenders to straighten out their lives. 

Publicly the Governor, Senate President and House Speaker have all expressed their support for some sort of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform.  The Senate did so most recently in December with the passage of a CORI bill that also included sentencing law changes for non-violent drug offenders.  The word is that the House will act within the next two weeks.  Let’s hope that their proposal doesn’t stop at CORI reform and includes meaningful sentencing reform.

For more than 20 years the BBA has been studying and advocating on these issues and strongly believes that it’s time to finally make these measured changes a reality.  We have sponsored and encouraged thoughtful study of our criminal justice system recommending changes — including repeal of most mandatory sentencing laws.   

In the present fiscal crisis, their adoption would have significantly positive economic and social impacts.  A combination of CORI and sentencing reform, plus post-release supervision, would accomplish cost-effective changes in our criminal justice system that enhance public safety, and facilitate offender re-entry and employment, while saving judicial and correctional resources for the most serious offenders. 

Employers often use CORI reports to help screen out prospective job applicants. On one side of the debate are supporters of the current CORI law who say access is needed to protect employers from hiring someone who might be a liability to their business. On the other side of the debate are the critics who contend that the widespread use of CORI reports often prevent ex-convicts from starting over and that an individual who has already paid his or her debt to society should be given a second chance and would be less likely to re-offend if they did not have to overcome barriers to employment, housing and other services.

The CORI law was created to control the release of information concerning an individual’s prior criminal history.  Initially limited to law enforcement officials, the law has been expanded to provide access to other organizations, particularly those that service children, the elderly and the disabled.  Maintaining accurate CORI information is important, as these reports can include not only an individual’s prior convictions, but also any pending charges as well as cases that ended without a conviction. This can include cases where the individual was found not guilty, or the charges were dismissed.  We need to find the balance between access and disclosure.

Ex-offenders, including those who have successfully completed a term of imprisonment, must be encouraged to obtain and retain productive employment.  Employed ex-offenders are able to support and house themselves, rather than remain an economic burden to the Commonwealth.  Right now, those with minor or long dormant criminal records confront complicated hurdles due to the way CORI records are handled when the ex-offenders seek employment or housing.  The current system is confusing and complicated and some employers have access to criminal information while others don’t. 

There seems to be support for some sort of CORI reform throughout the legislature. But CORI reform and sentencing reform must be viewed as interconnected parts of the solution.  CORI reform is not going to be as effective if inmates serve lengthy sentences that preclude access to re-entry opportunities.  Parole and work release eligibility for drug offenders would help transform appropriate candidates from expensive correctional burdens to contributing members of society. 

Sensible sentencing reform must include post-release supervision, and a system of presumptive post-release supervision for all offenders incarcerated in state prison. It’s intelligent and fiscally responsible and would avoid the current practice in which offenders often are released directly to the community after serving the maximum term of their sentence, without any transitional period.

The Commonwealth is now experiencing the most severe fiscal crisis in decades and this provides us with an opportunity to enact responsible sentencing and CORI reform.  Simply put, every offender who makes a successful return to the community as a result of these measures will be one less financial burden to the taxpayers of this state, and our communities will be made safer in the process.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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