Point of View: Justice reform in Oklahoma must include civil legal assistance

Criminal justice reform is not reform without civil legal assistance. The providers of civil legal assistance need to be at the criminal justice reform table.

Op-Ed (Oklahoma)

Molly Aspan, Dwight L. Smith
March 13, 2019

Tags: Access to Justice, Criminal Justice

Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma


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.