When people of means encounter injustice or are accused of crimes, they hire an attorney to represent them in a court of law. But for people living in poverty, their choices are more limited.
If it’s a criminal case, a defendant will be assigned a public defender. If it’s a civil case, the individual can apply for aid with their local branch of legal services. But despite these options, low-income people are at a disadvantage in the American justice system, say St. Louis attorneys who serve the poor.
“There is in fact unquestioningly an income-based disparity,” Daniel Glazier said. He is the executive director of and general counsel for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Inc. The problem, he said, is having enough resources to provide a lawyer to everyone who needs one. His organization receives funds from the National Legal Service Corporation, grants, foundations and donations from the community.
“The primary gap exists between people who have an attorney and people who don’t,” echoed Thomas Harvey. He is the co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, Inc., an organization which helps St. Louisans who don’t qualify for a public defender or for Legal Services but still can’t afford an attorney.
“There’s about one legal aid / legal services attorney for approximately every 6,500 people (nationwide),” Glazier said. “And compare that to the private sector, where there’s approximately one attorney for every approximately 429 people.”
The justice gap is particularly wide in Missouri because the public defender system is underfunded, St. Louis deputy district defender Rick Kroeger said. Due to lack of funds, the Missouri Public Defender System no longer employs social workers, which means underlying issues that cause legal problems aren’t addressed.
In comparison, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and ArchCity Defenders do work with social workers and social service agencies in an effort to address issues caused by such things as substance abuse and mental health.
Barriers Beyond Access to an Attorney
Even with legal representation, living in poverty provides other barriers to justice. For example, the inability to make bond means that his clients can’t prove to a judge that they’re turning their life around by getting a job or getting sober, Kroeger said. Instead, all they can do is promise to make changes.
Lack of income also creates legal problems because of unpaid bills. If someone is unable to pay a hospital bill, said Glazier, they can receive a judgment demanding payment, which can lead to wage garnishment, which can lead to problems at work, and perhaps even cause problems with housing.
“What would be a stub of a toe to people with means is a mountain for low income people,” Glazier said.
A Practical Reason to Close the Gap
Beyond issues of justice and equality, there are practical reasons to fix the justice gap, Harvey said.
“It’s insanely expensive to the taxpayer to continue to incarcerate and house people who are primarily there for their lack of means. In the municipal court system there are people being locked up on warrants for failure to pay fines….but then they’re locked up…in order to collect fines that they’re never going to collect from our clients,” he said. “So it’s a financial issue. There’s a strong argument to be made that this is not only the right thing to do morally and ethically, to treat our fellow human beings well, but also economically it does not make sense.”
Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice Presents "The Justice Gap"
Thursday, January 9, 2014
Coffee at 6:30 p.m.
Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road
Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice Website