For criminal justice reform, look to civil legal aid

Any reform on criminal justice will fall short unless our leaders recognize that being smart on crime requires being just as smart on civil justice.


David Udell
Al Jazeera America
September 5, 2015

Tags: Access to Justice

Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Services of Southern Missouri (LSSM), Legal Services Corporation (LSC), National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law School


The ongoing reform debate too often overlooks the ways in which the criminal and civil justice systems intertwine to harm people of color and the poor.


Similar problems overwhelm the U.S. justice system on a daily basis. Millions of evictions and foreclosures, domestic violence cases and accusations of neglect, debt collections and denials of benefits, civil asset forfeitures, civil court fees, suspensions of driver’s licenses and more churn through local courtrooms. When neglected, the problems fester, and lives go awry. The result is a spinning cycle of poverty and correctional control as hunger, isolation, stress and violence inevitably draw people into the system and burden our society.

None of this is to suggest that civil legal aid can solve all the problems of poverty or prevent all the excesses of the criminal justice system. But it can make a significant difference, for example, by helping families save their homes from foreclosure or allowing parents and children to stay in jobs and schools instead of landing on the street. Civil legal aid can also help people settle their debt burdens, saving their money and their dignity while satisfying creditors instead of slipping into a shadowy existence. It can assist those in child support disputes (as in Mary’s case) and halt domestic violence, pre-empting escalation that leads to criminal prosecution.