Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Keynote Remarks at the Launch of the Alaska Legal Services Corporation’s Community Justice Worker Resource Center

Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Keynote Remarks at the Launch of the Alaska Legal Services Corporation’s Community Justice Worker Resource Center

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Justice Henderson, for that warm introduction, and deep gratitude to the Alaska Supreme Court and Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) for hosting this impactful event. Congratulations on the launch of the Community Justice Worker Resource Center.

A special thank you to Nikole Nelson, Justice Henderson and Justice Borghesan for the invitation to speak to this inspiring group of lawyers and advocates. It’s an honor to join all of you in this room who have dedicated yourselves to increasing access to justice for Alaskans and for being a model for access to justice programs and practitioners across the country.

Our mission at the Office for Access to Justice is to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems. We work to break down barriers to the founding principle and enduring promise of equal justice under law. 

As we pursue this mission, a critical component is expanding access to counsel. We work to expand the availability of civil legal assistance and public defense and to promote innovative alternatives to provide legal help.

But truly seeking access to justice for all, requires support for access to counsel to be closely aligned with our work to root out systemic inequities within our legal systems through justice system reform. And it must also be complemented by our work to support creative and innovative solutions that look beyond lawyers as the only answer to the justice crisis.

Access to justice for all will require us to bring all our tools to bear. An approach that requires us to prioritize the perspectives of impacted communities and incorporate their consistent feedback, and to partner broadly across sectors and disciplines, outside of the legal profession alone.

This is why it is an honor to join you today to celebrate the innovative work and expansion of the ALSC Community Justice Worker Program. Your work here in Alaska embodies these principles of these people-centered and innovative access to justice strategies.

Our office is pursuing our broad mission with this bold vision. And while we’ve only been here for just under two years, after humble beginnings with only a handful of dedicated public servants, our team now consists of almost 40 highly motivated and passionate professionals. I’d like to share a little bit about what we do and how we further our mission.

First, we promote access to counsel and legal help and access to counsel.

We moved the Federal Government Pro Bono Program into our office and increased its resources for the first time in over 20 years by doubling the staff to expand the program’s reach. The program provides pro bono opportunities for thousands of federal government attorneys to help provide free legal services across a range of substantive areas and allows the program to have a greater impact.

For example, this week, the office is hosting nine pro bono events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pro Bono Week, including a pro bono clinic hosted with Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco last Saturday and the Federal Government Pro Bono Week Keynote Address with LSC President Ron Flagg on Monday.

I’m also pleased that our office will be contributing to an Alaska Bar pro bono week event this Friday.

Also, earlier this year, we led a country-wide tour to mark the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, during which high-level Justice Department officials joined me in visits with public defenders, impacted communities and advocates across the United States. We traveled from urban centers, to southern, midwestern, Tribal and rural areas. And we announced specific actions our office would take, informed by what we heard.

As one example, the Deputy Attorney General joined us to launch the tour and announced a comprehensive review of access to counsel in federal Bureau of Prisons pre-trial facilities. Our office was proud to co-lead that review and report which we released in July. The report contains over 40 concrete recommendations that we are working with the Bureau of Prisons to implement. 

We are also seeking to expand legal help by launching an innovative Civil Legal Services Pilot Project to provide civil legal help to people incarcerated in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. By providing targeted civil legal services, we hope to improve successful reentry outcomes and disrupt the cycle of incarceration, unresolved civil legal needs, poverty and recidivism.

Our office is also advancing our mission by pursuing reforms to our systems and policies that have operated to unfairly prohibit access to the promise of justice. 

For example, the assessment of fines and fees can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. While a $500 fine for violating a municipal ordinance may be an inconvenience to an affluent litigant, for a low-income litigant it can mean choosing between complying with a court order and feeding their children or paying rent. 

Earlier this year we partnered with the department’s Civil Rights Division and Office of Justice Programs to issue a policy statement on fines and fees, recommending against assessing legal system fines and fees which may be unlawful, racially discriminatory and unfairly penalize individuals who may be unable to pay. 

As a follow on to this letter, our office is working to soon issue a Fines and Fees Best Practices Report to promote innovative efforts that are working to reduce reliance on court fines and fees across the country, to uplift that work and promote further reforms.

We’re also promoting people-centered approaches across all of our initiatives.

One way we’re doing this is through leading language access efforts for the Justice Department. Our office hired the first-ever DOJ-wide Language Access Coordinator, who chairs the Department of Justice Language Access Working Group and led efforts to modernize and update the department’s Language Access Plan for the first time in over a decade. One of the critical components was to enhance and provide tools for DOJ offices to expansively engage with the communities they serve to better understand language resource needs.

Finally, we’re expanding partnerships across federal government, with agencies whose missions and expertise span sectors of society.

Our office staffs and directs the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), which is a collaboration of over 28 federal agencies co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and the White House Counsel’s Office.

In 2022 LAIR’s work focused on the simplification of government forms, processes and language so that all people can more easily access federal resources, reducing the burden on legal service providers. Most importantly, the report created a roadmap to simplifying access that starts with understanding community experiences and barriers faced, and then using that feedback to propose ways to simplify. 

LAIR’s 2022 work also highlighted the potential promise of non-lawyer assistance to help close the justice gap, particularly for marginalized and underserved communities.

It cited the efforts of AmeriCorps, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to create opportunities for non-lawyers to provide assistance, including legal navigators and accredited representatives.

In 2023, LAIR is drilling down on access to justice barriers in federal administrative proceedings and I’d like to thank Nikole and a community justice worker in Seward for already contributing to an advocates’s listening session with agency representatives as part of that process. We are hopeful that this interagency collaboration will help increase federal investment in innovative solutions such as this one.

As our office develops initiatives, it is critical that we regularly engage with and learn from those doing the innovative work on the ground. All of our efforts must be informed by the communities we serve and developed with an understanding of the barriers faced by those experiencing the access to justice crisis.

That’s why we’re here in Alaska. During the past few days, I’ve had the privilege to visit many leaders, judges, community, justice workers, Tribal leaders and organizations, here in Anchorage and also in Bethel. I have been amazed at the work already accomplished during the pilot phase of the Community Justice Worker Project. 

You’ve demonstrated an approach that starts with learning more about the needs of, and engaging with the community you serve. And you’re partnering across disciplines — education, healthcare and more — the Alaska Legal Services Corporation learning and collaborating with Alaska Pacific University and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, among others. 

You’re also partnering with researchers. It is particularly exciting to see the time and financial investment in research and data, with the National Science Foundation investing over $1 million to further study the impact of this project. Rigorous study of an innovative project like this has the power to inform evidence-based policy decisions that can transform justice outcomes. 

Community justice workers have undoubtedly already increased the availability of civil legal assistance in Alaskan communities by training and empowering individuals already located in communities to provide assistance. 

In a few short years, the Community Justice Worker Program has grown to over 300 volunteers providing critical legal services to those in need. In addition, thanks to a $4.7 million grant from the Legal Service Corporation, ALSC will be joined in bolstering the resilience of the community justice worker model by four additional Tribal communities in Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona and Minnesota.

So, as we both celebrate and encourage these types of innovative solutions, I’m reminded of a client I once represented, who taught me of the importance of challenging our perspectives and notions of justice.

As a young public defender, I had a client who was houseless, had mental health issues and consistently racked up new misdemeanor charges for sleeping on the sidewalk. Everyone knew him, because he had dozens of cases. And he always came back to court, on time, with his shopping bag full of citations, dutifully, for each arraignment.

And I told this client that the system afforded him two options — he could plead guilty or we could fight his cases at trial, he flatly told me he chose neither. I was a young passionate public defender, so of course I told him of the legal defenses he had, and, with fire, encouraged him to fight each case, make them prove it. I was ready to spend weeks in back to back trials because I saw the injustice of what this client faced.

He came back to court each time, and each time I presented him with the only two options under the legal system as it operated. Plead guilty or fight at trial. And he just continued to say no – neither of those options was justice.

I explained to him how the system operated, and that he had to choose pleading guilty or going to trial. And he said, “I choose neither.”

He knew that a system that would force him to obtain a criminal conviction for being homeless was not justice. And he also knew that spending weeks in back-to-back trials was simply not justice either. 

I ended up crafting significant mitigation and pushing for months. Eventually, once I had tired everyone in that courtroom out, all his citations were dismissed. And today, for many reasons, including litigation and court orders, this offense today is no longer prosecuted in the way it once was.

But that’s not the point of the story. That client taught me an invaluable lesson about the mission of justice that I have carried with me throughout my career. This pursuit of justice often requires us to reimagine our systems, and to push for visions of justice that others may not yet see as possible. It won’t be easy, it may take time and patience and it can frequently be exhausting. But to truly access justice for all, we cannot accept only the choices before us. We cannot be limited by the options the system presents us today.

And while we’ve all heard the familiar adage frequently shared by lawyers, we work to give a voice to the voiceless, I think we need to reframe this concept.

As this former client of mine demonstrated, people impacted by our legal systems do not lack a voice, in fact, many of them have the sharpest and most poignant voices within our community. It is our duty as defenders, advocates, judicial leaders and policymakers to ensure that we elevate and empower the voices of communities we serve. This helps to keep us focused on the vision of what justice should look like. 

And as we do so, partnering across sectors of society and disciplines can open new doors, ideas and strategies. With humility and shared learning with healthcare and other fields, legal systems can learn new approaches to address longstanding gaps.

We need these new visions, because civil justice statistics and individual experiences point to an overwhelming failure of the justice system to meet the legal needs of low-income Americans.

Every year, the World Justice Project ranks the countries of the world on their compliance with various measures of the rule of law, including the accessibility and affordability of civil justice. In the most recent rankings of 140 countries, the United States is 115th. Among the 43 wealthiest countries, the United States ranks 43rd, last on accessibility and affordability.

Traditional solutions to civil access to justice have included increased funding to legal aid and the development of more pro bono work. And we must continue to strongly support those essential tools. But those actions alone will not be enough to fill the civil justice chasm we currently face. While we continue to expand these efforts, we can augment their impact and reach with creativity and new ideas.

This is why the community justice worker program is so promising. The Supreme Court of Alaska and Alaska Legal Services Corporation are devising an innovative, unique and community-centered approach to meeting justice needs. The problem that the Community Justice Worker project aims to solve is the perfect storm of civil justice barriers: providing legal assistance to rural communities only accessible by airplane with few or no lawyers, limited digital access and unique cultural and language needs.  

Not an easy task, but here in Alaska you are demonstrating what can be accomplished when we choose not to accept the limitations presented by the systems before us, and instead choose to reimagine what the delivery of justice can look like. 

Thank you to so many in this room for your efforts to not only meet justice needs in Alaska, but to bring your ideas, creativity and passion for this project to the wider access to justice community.  

This is what access to justice looks like.

Know that the Office for Access to Justice will continue to support and uplift your work, jointly demanding the promised ideals of equal access to justice, until they are realized. Thank you again for having me.

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