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Western Center Roundup – February 2024

Honoring Black History Month and the Critical Work Ahead of Us
As Black History Month comes to a close, we honor the life and legacy of Professor Derrick Bell, one of Western Center’s founding members, past executive director, and a leading voice in the school of thought that would become critical race theory. We honor WCLP’s rich history, standing on the shoulders of giants, as we continue the critical work of eliminating anti-Blackness in Health, Housing, Public Benefits, and Access to Justice. We continue to expand our team to even more effectively tackle issues that disproportionately impact the Black community like the housing crisis, the burden of medical debt, and birthing justice and equity.

Blog Post: Black Midwifery and Birthing Justice
In a recent blog post, Senior Health Advocate Etecia Burrell delves into the racist roots of “professionalized” medicine as it relates to obstetrics and gynecology, Black Americans’ long history as birthing guides, and the current state of the centuries old practice of midwifery in America today.  Read the full blog post here.

 

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Blog Post: Anaheim City Council Stiffens Penalties for Street Vendors

Western Center Outreach & Advocacy Associate Abe Zavala-Rodriguez recently wrote a blog post that highlights recent changes to Anaheim’s harsh vending policies.

This month Anaheim City Council voted to impound street vendor equipment and codify into law non-vending zones, moves he says are fueled by stereotypes that suggest street vendors deter customers from visiting brick and mortar businesses in the city. Read the full blog post here.

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Join Us for the Next “Meet the Advocates”
March 12th at 12:30-1:30PM
Join Western Center on Law and Poverty’s policy advocates for a deep dive into our 2024 legislative agenda, including our bills on medical debt protections, increasing housing voucher utilization, reducing Black maternal mortality, fighting for Medi-Cal continuous coverage, housing as a human right, and much, much more! The presentation will be followed by a Q&A.
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Last Chance:  Apply for Reimbursement of Electronically Stolen Benefits
If you had cash aid or CalFresh benefits stolen without losing custody of your EBT card, you may have been a victim of electronic theft. This training tells you how to ask for reimbursement if your benefits were electronically stolen. It includes links to the claim form and resources.  If the benefits were stolen between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2023, you must file a claim form by February 29, 2024.
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Justice, USA Documentary To Premiere on MAX

Marshall Goldberg’s documentary Justice, USA is set to premiere March 14, 2024, on MAX. The movie puts viewers in the shoes of indigent defendants, offering an inside, 360-degree look at the criminal justice system in some of the most racially-divided cities in the United States.

Shot over seven months in Nashville with almost no restrictions, this six-part series for MAX bears witness to everyday life in the men’s jail, the women’s jail, juvenile court, and the courthouse. There are no narrators and no experts. Justice, USA simply lets the cameras roll so we see and hear directly from the people who make up the system – inmates, lawyers, deputies, administrators – in their own voices.

To learn more about this groundbreaking documentary, click here.

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Join our Team
As Western Center continues to position itself for greater reach and impact in 2024, we currently have three positions open: Policy Advocate – HousingSenior Health Attorney or Health Attorney, and Senior Communications Strategist.

Please share these opportunities widely with your networks!

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Western Center Roundup – October 2023


Hunger Persists but So Do We
A new report from the United States Department of Agriculture shows a sharp rise in food insecurity in 2022, the latest numbers available. A staggering 17 million households struggled to get enough food in 2022, a jump from 13.5 million households who were food insecure in 2021. Hunger, like poverty, is a policy choice and is not inevitable. Our Public Benefits and Access to Justice team continues to monitor the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the federal level, including suing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect food benefits in the face of Congressional inaction and winning guaranteed October benefits for over 40 million Americans. Our plaintiff, Jacqueline, spoke with CalMatters about struggling to make ends meet. Just this month, Chris Sanchez, policy advocate, was featured in Food Research & Action Center’s list of 12 Latinx advocates “who are leading the charge to end hunger and poverty.”

2023 Legislative Successes

This year, Governor Newsom signed four of our co-sponsored bills into law:

SB 567 (Senator María Elena Durazo), the Homelessness Prevention Act will close the loopholes in the AB 1482 (Chiu), the Tenant Protection Act, another WCLP co-sponsored bill in 2019 that established the first statewide just cause eviction protections and rent stabilization ordinance in CA. SB 567 will provide both a private and public right of action for violations of AB 1482 and will close loopholes in owner-move-in and substantial rehabilitations evictions. These are the two most common protections that unscrupulous landlords violate. Co-Sponsored with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, PICO California, and Public Advocates.

AB 1418 (Assemblymember Tina McKinnor), Limiting Racially Motivated Crime-Free Housing Programs and Nuisance Ordinances ends predatory local laws that have unfairly increased evictions and further exacerbated California’s housing crisis. This bill will prohibit a local government from, among other things from requiring or encouraging a landlord to evict or penalize a tenant because of the tenant’s previous history with law enforcement, their association with another tenant or household member who has had contact with a law enforcement agency or has a criminal conviction, or to perform a criminal background check of a tenant or a prospective tenant. Co-Sponsored with California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Disability Rights California, National Housing Law Project, and Root & Rebound.

SB595 (Senator Richard Roth), Minimizing Gaps in Health Care Coverage clears up language in another WCLP co-sponsored bill from 2022, SB 644 (Leyva) requiring Employment Development Department (EDD) to share information about those who applied for income-replacing benefits administered by EDD with Covered California to allow Covered California to outreach and help enroll these individuals in Medi-Cal or Covered California. SB595 prevents insurance agents and enrollment brokers from cold-calling individuals to offer healthcare coverage and allows Covered California to conduct timely and targeted outreach to individuals. Co-sponsored with the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and Health Access.

SB 727 (Senator Monique Limón), Forgiveness of Coerced Debt for Survivors of Human Trafficking will provide a pathway for survivors of human trafficking to have coerced debt accrued during the time they were trafficked forgiven. Co-Sponsored with Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) and Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.

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A Night to Remember – Reflections from Garden Party 2023
Over 300 people gathered at the Ebell of Los Angeles last week in celebration of Garden Party 2023, our annual fundraiser and night to honor anti-poverty trailblazers. Read about this spectacular night!
FULL BLOG

California’s Riverside County Agrees to Reimburse Families $540K in Juvenile Detention Fees

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Para ver esta información en español, haz clic aqui

Settlement Website, click here

January 31, 2023

Contacts:

Willis Jacobson, National Center for Youth Law: [email protected]

Estevan Montemayor, Western Center on Law and Poverty: [email protected]

 

CALIFORNIA’S RIVERSIDE COUNTY AGREES TO REIMBURSE FAMILIES $540K IN JUVENILE DETENTION FEES

Riverside County families who were subjected to illegal collection of juvenile fees moved a step closer toward justice — in the form of cash reimbursements — after a court this month granted preliminary approval of a settlement in a class action lawsuit they brought against the County.

The lawsuit, Freeman v. County of Riverside, alleged that the County did not follow California law and the U.S. Constitution when it charged millions of dollars in fees to families who had children in juvenile detention. Under state law, the County was obligated to ensure families had the ability to pay fees they were assessed and inform families of their right to challenge the fees. The plaintiffs claimed that the County failed to fulfill these legal duties. The families are represented by the National Center for Youth Law and the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

After the families filed their complaint in court in March 2020, the County agreed to stop collecting $4.1 million in outstanding juvenile detention and administrative fees. The parties have now negotiated a settlement, in which the County agrees to pay $540,307 to reimburse more than 1,200 class members for the fee payments they made.

“The County’s practices have had a devastating effect on families,” said Michael Harris, an attorney and Senior Director of Legal Advocacy and Justice and Equity at the National Center for Youth Law. “This settlement will offer those families meaningful relief and deter Riverside County and other jurisdictions from illegally assessing and collecting money from struggling families.”

The settlement, if finalized, would mark a major victory for families in Riverside County, some of whom have been caught in decades-long cycles of financial turmoil as a result of the County’s collection practices. Plaintiffs Shirley and Daniel Freeman are among those from whom the County pursued for more than 10 years to collect fees related to their grandson’s time in juvenile detention. “The settlement gives recognition to what happened to us and other families,” said Shirley and Daniel Freeman. “We are pleased that the lawsuit helped families by canceling amounts they still owed and now the settlement will return some of the money that was collected from them.”

“Even when state law requires consideration of ability to pay, individuals and their families are frequently burdened with debt they’re unable to pay. These fees cause significant harm to families, undermining community health and trust in public institutions,” said Rebecca Miller, Senior Litigator with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “This case shows why fees should not be charged to individuals involved in the juvenile justice system.”

Families from whom Riverside County collected juvenile detention fees will receive mailed notice about the proposed class action settlement in the coming weeks. Parents and guardians who believe they might be members of the class action entitled to relief under the settlement should visit the Settlement Administrator’s website at www.riversidejuvenilefees.com or call (833) 472-1997.

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The National Center for Youth Law centers youth through research, community collaboration, impact litigation, and policy advocacy that fundamentally transforms our nation’s approach to education, health, immigration, foster care, and youth justice. Our vision is a world in which every child thrives and has a full and fair opportunity to achieve the future they envision for themselves. For more information, visit www.youthlaw.org.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice. For more information, visit www.wclp.org.

OP-ED: Market capitalism is not the answer to close the justice gap

Western Center senior attorney Lorraine López wrote an op-ed to explain why the California State Bar’s current recommendations for closing the state’s justice gap is off target, and points to the solutions legal service providers have spent years advocating for.

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Legal services attorneys help people experiencing poverty enforce their rights, but federal restrictions on funding prevent opportunities for lasting justice

Federal funding for legal services began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. With the legislative successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, people living in poverty needed lawyers to access the courts and assert their newfound rights.

New legal services groups sprouted up across the country, and existing privately-funded programs expanded; both were very successful at serving thousands of low-income folks and winning cases.  Before 1965, no legal aid case made it to the Supreme Court, but following federal investment in legal services, over 200 cases made it to the high court, and legal services won most of them.

From the outset of the program, that success drew ire of both corporate and political interests over the continued funding for legal aid. For example, in 1969 then-California Governor Ronald Reagan attempted to defund California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) because of its success in court against corporate dairy farmers and the state.  Reagan’s attempt failed spectacularly when a commission of three state Supreme Court justices, all Republicans, vindicated CRLA against all 127 charges.

When most of the war on poverty was dismantled, the legal services program survived.  The last bill President Nixon signed into law before resigning in 1974 established the Legal Services Corporation, which remains the largest source of funding for the nation’s legal aid programs.

But old animosities did not die.  When Reagan was elected President, his administration tried to eliminate funding for LSC altogether.  When this effort was thwarted by bi-partisan support for legal services, he appointed extremists to govern the national program.  This had a very real effect of limiting legal aid groups in their ability to challenge an unjust status quo.  Further, it kept legal service organizations battling to maintain funding – diverting time and energy from fighting poverty. Western Center’s successful case against the Legal Services Corporation for its arbitrary denial of funding in 1984 is one example of such a battle.

Then, in 1995, the Newt Gingrich-led Congress eliminated federal funding for national and state support centers like Western Center, and imposed additional restrictions on LSC funding with the clear intent of preventing legal aid groups from seeking systemic change.

These are some of the restrictions that have been imposed on LSC organizations through the years: (1) no class actions, eliminating the major procedural mechanism to represent masses of people wronged by an entity; (2) severe restrictions on legislative  and administrative advocacy; (3) no organizing; (4) no representation of undocumented immigrants; (5) no representation in cases involving voting redistricting; (6) no representation of people facing eviction from public housing based on a drug conviction; (7) no civil representation of prisoners; (8) no cases seeking statutory attorneys’ fees, a restriction that lasted from 1995-2009; (9) no school desegregation cases; (10) no abortion cases; and (11) no litigation or other advocacy “involving an effort to reform a Federal or State welfare system.”

Perhaps worst of all, most of these restrictions apply not just to the federal funds received by programs, but also to money received from other sources, such as private donations.  In other words, legal services attorneys, who represent clients in need of the most aggressive and creative representation, are faced with restrictions not imposed on any other members of the legal profession.

It’s evident that these restrictions are designed to preserve power and eliminate the opportunity for people experiencing poverty to access real justice.  Limited funding (and for a long time, limited ability for legal aid groups to seek attorney’s fees in cases they won) keeps legal aid attorneys chronically under-resourced, overworked, and underpaid.  The prohibitions on class actions and restrictions on lobbying are intended to prevent legal aid firms from addressing systemic issues faced by the broadest numbers of people living in poverty, like institutional racism and residential segregation. All of these restrictions serve as dog whistles at best, targeted dehumanization to keep people in poverty at worst.

We are proud to partner with advocates in LSC-funded programs who, despite restrictions, work daily miracles for their clients.  Imagine what these creative and talented advocates could do if they did not have one hand tied behind their backs.

 

No Money, No Lawyer, No Justice

“Usually people on the other end of overpayment or overissuance claims don’t have attorneys to help, said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “That’s really appalling, because a public benefits fraud case can be enough to kick you out of the country if you’re an immigrant; they could go to jail; they could lose their kids if they go into Child Protective Services.” When people have lawyers, by contrast, “one out of two times” they can prove there was no overpayment at all.”

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