Justice Department announces civil legal services pilot program

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The Justice Department announced today that the Office for Access to Justice, Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections (NIC) are collaborating to launch an innovative pilot program to provide civil legal services to incarcerated individuals in select Bureau of Prisons (BOP) women’s facilities.

In remarks delivered at the department’s Celebration of Second Chances event, the Deputy Attorney General highlighted this new initiative as a strategy to improve success upon reentry.

Incarcerated individuals are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to unmet civil legal needs. The prompt resolution of pending civil legal issues – such as debt collection, access to benefits or child custody matters – can help support successful reentry and promote public safety. The department recently issued a report finding that access to legal assistance is a barrier for most in this country, and this civil justice gap widens for those who are incarcerated. The Civil Legal Services Pilot Program will seek to meet this need.

“When individuals leaving incarceration cannot access basic needs to pursue a successful future, we’re not achieving the promises of justice,” said Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice. “Legal help can often ensure access to these foundational needs, like economic security. By partnering with the Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections to offer legal services to individuals during incarceration, ATJ can help break down barriers to equal access to justice for all.”

“Partnering with the Office for Access to Justice is a crucial step in breaking down barriers to provide important legal access to adults in custody,” said BOP Director Colette Peters. “Some of the most vulnerable individuals in need of legal resources will now be afforded the opportunity to have access. The initial pilot, serving our women in custody, is significant as it will continue to support our gender responsive, and trauma informed focus, while addressing the additional barriers women also face.”

The Civil Legal Services Pilot Program was launched after the Bureau of Prisons, National Institute of Corrections and Office for Access to Justice administered a voluntary survey to incarcerated individuals to assess civil legal need. More than 50,000 adults in custody responded, and the overwhelming majority of the respondents stated that they would benefit from civil legal services. This pilot program will start to offer those services on a limited scale – on particular issues in certain facilities – with the purpose of evaluating the feasibility and utility of expanding those services across all BOP facilities. Informed by this review and relevant research and data, BOP, NIC and ATJ anticipate that the pilot program will focus initially on women’s facilities.

“Working with the Office for Access to Justice has been a wonderful collaboration so far, and we are just getting started,” said Acting Director Dr. Alix McLearen of the National Institute of Corrections. The survey results show the incredible need which exists in the incarcerated population. Addressing legal concerns while people are still in custody is a major step forward in promoting successful community reintegration. And beginning the pilot with women continues our important work on equity and inclusion.”

In the coming weeks, the department’s Office for Access to Justice will post a job announcement for an Attorney Advisor within the Office for Access to Justice to develop, launch and implement this pilot program, working with the support of the Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections, who will monitor the work and develop lessons learned as the initiative continues.

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