Keynote speaker Lisa Foster, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice, praised an Oxford-based legal organization for its efforts in changing local policies, which held poor people in jails when they couldn’t pay bonds or fees.
“Mississippi is in first place on how you can change the way courts treat people,” she said.
She cited recent court settlements between the MacArthur Center for Justice with the city of Jackson and between the ACLU of Mississippi and the city of Biloxi to change their fines and bail policies. The cities previously held the poor under a “pay or stay” policy if the defendants couldn’t afford fines or fees.
“These settlements are models for the rest of the country, not just here,” Foster said.
Foster said the country’s justice system actually contributes to poverty when the poor cannot secure legal representation or advice on solving everyday problems.
Earlier, outgoing chairman Judge Denise Owens of Jackson recalled the years it’s taken to organize the state’s Access to Justice network.
“Ten years just went by so fast,” said Owens, “but there’s so much work to be done.”
Owens told her audience at the Mississippi Supreme Court building that more than 600,000 state citizens qualify for free legal aid, but too few attorneys are available to meet that need.
“The problem with access to justice is a problem with poverty,” said co-chairman Rodger Wilder, a Gulfport attorney.
He said there’s “no one way we’re going to solve this problem” without new solutions.
Educating the poor to represent themselves is key, Wilder noted, saying “I’m afraid we’re never going to have enough lawyers” to personally help every poor Mississippian who needs legal help.
Wendy Scott, dean of the Mississippi College School of Law, told participants, “There is a justice gap in this country, so the work of this commission is very important.”
Work to establish the access commission began some 15 years ago and accelerated in 2006 through the leadership of Chief Justice Ed Pittman and Justice Jess Dickinson.
The commission brings together free legal services from the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, Mississippi Legal Services, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mission First Legal Aid Office, Gulf Coast Women’s Center for Nonviolence/Northcutt Legal Clinic, Disability Rights Mississippi, Domestic Violence Legal Assistance at Catholic Charities and the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.
Tiffany Graves, the commission’s executive director, told participants about plans to develop a mobile app to provide information to people who must represent themselves, especially on minor civil matters in municipal and justice courts.
She also announced a new internet site – ms.freelegalanswers.org – for the poor to ask questions of real volunteer attorneys about civil legal issues. Graves, who serves on the board of Mississippi Today, urged state attorneys to be involved with the web site.