Massachusetts could increase access to justice through just one website

BOSTON, October 3, 2019 — A research report released today by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice explores how the Massachusetts Trial Court could develop a new, online help center for court users.

The report details how the court system could use innovative technology, a free help line, and a revamped collection of informational materials to assist court users who are forced to represent themselves because they cannot afford to hire an attorney or do not qualify for legal aid. Over half of all civil court users in the Commonwealth represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney, according to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.

“Today in Massachusetts, most people who find themselves in civil court are there alone, without a lawyer to assist them. Usually, this is because they can’t afford to pay for legal help. They’re at risk of losing their families, homes, and livelihood not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they don’t know how to protect their rights,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “One proven solution to this growing problem is for courts to provide free online self-help services.”

Court users and the staff who serve them report a need for answering basic logistical questions, providing legal information on case processes, and help with filling out court forms as the most in-demand services from court users.

Today’s report recommends options for expanding legal self-help services that also meet the needs of court users in Massachusetts, including:

  • Creating a LiveHelp center where court users could call or message attorneys with questions about their cases.
  • Developing new document assembly programs that would allow users to easily fill out legal forms online.
  • Revamping the existing informational webpage the court system provides to make it more complete and user-friendly.

As the report details, many other states have taken steps to provide expansive, more effective legal self-help materials through their court websites. Most states – including Massachusetts – have information on how to navigate court proceedings and different types of civil court cases, such as divorce, guardianship, housing, or small claims cases, available online. In addition, state courts in Maryland and Alaska have also developed LiveHelp centers where court users can call a free phone line and receive information and guidance from attorneys and paralegals. In New York, the court system has developed an extensive collection of document assembly programs that allow users to enter their personal information and then receive completed legal forms that they can file with the court.

“We hope the Virtual Court Service Center will be a lasting contribution to increasing access to justice in Massachusetts,” Silva added. “This report represents an exciting vision of how we can use technology to help an even greater number of people with their legal issues than ever before.”

The report, “Turning on the Lights: How the Massachusetts Trial Court Could Deploy a Virtual Court Service Center to Assist Self-Represented Litigants” is available online: https://massappleseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Court-Service-Center-Report-Final.pdf

About the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:

Massachusetts Appleseed’s mission is to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. We research the ways in which the justice system, schools, and government agencies are systematically failing our most vulnerable residents. We collaborate with community partners to ensure that recommended plans of action are practical and comprehensive. We advocate for the implementation of solutions that will create lasting change.

Contact Jake Hofstetter at 617-482-8686 or email jake@massappleseed.org for more information about this report.

 

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Many thanks to our generous hosts at Scholars American Bistro & Cocktail Club and to everyone who joined us for our first-ever Trivia Night! It was a wonderful night with plenty of laughs, and we’re so grateful to all the teams who participated. A big congratulations to the winners, Team Lynn Legal Services and Alums!

Thank you to the sponsors who made this event possible:

Kathie and John Shutkin

Lynn Legal Services and Alums

 

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Action Alert

This week, the Conference Committee released its final, reconciled 2020 budget – a consolidation of the House and Senate versions totaling $43.1 billion. This year, our budget priorities included:

  • Support for Homeless Youth (Line Item #4000-0007)
    • $5 million to fund housing and support services for youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Safe and Supportive Schools (Line Item #7061-9612)
    • $508,128 to fund the Safe and Supportive Schools program and ensure all students are empowered to succeed in school.
  • Civil Legal Aid (MLAC Line Item #0321-1600)
    • $24 million to provide civil legal aid to low-income individuals and families.

I’m happy to report that the Conference Committee has recommended full funding for all of these line items! Thank you to the House and Senate leadership, and a special thanks to you! Each time you raised your voice and called your legislators to support your most vulnerable neighbors, you have brought us one step closer to a 2020 where we are equipped to support all Massachusetts residents in shelters, in school, and in the courts.

This year’s budget battle is almost over…but not quite yet. The Legislature has voted on the budget and now it heads to Governor Baker’s desk, where he will have ten days to veto line items – potentially eliminating the vital funding for the line items listed above.

You have stood alongside us and fought hard for these line items as the budget made its way through the House, the Senate, and the Conference Committee. Don’t let Governor Baker veto them now.

Please join us in contacting Governor Baker’s office to let him know that you support the Conference Committee’s recommended funding for services for youth experiencing homelessness, safe and supportive schools, and increased access to justice through civil legal aid.

Click here to call or email the Governor’s office now!

You can read more about these important line items below:

Housing and Support Services for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Line Item #4000-0007

The Conference Committee adopted the Senate’s funding level of $5 million for support and services for youth experiencing homelessness! This is a long-overdue increase of $1.7 million from last year. Governor Baker’s administration highlighted its plan to end youth homelessness just a few months ago. Let him know that this funding level is a critical component of any solution to homelessness for young people in Massachusetts.

This increase to $5 million will fund vital services for one of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable populations and is an important step towards Governor Baker’s stated goal to address youth homelessness.

Please ask Governor Baker to adopt the Conference Committee’s recommended funding amount of $5 million.

Safe and Supportive School Environments

Line Item #7061-9612

In more good news, the Conference Committee has recommended $508,128 in funding for this essential line item, which is slightly ABOVE last year’s funding level. Many thanks to the Legislature for this welcome increase, particularly in a year when the question of school funding, and how well we are supporting our students, has been at the forefront of conversations across the state.

This increase will help continue the Safe and Supportive Schools program, which enables the development of school-wide Action Plans, facilitates the exchange of best practices, and ultimately works to empower all students to succeed in school.

Please join us in urging Governor Baker to include this funding level in the final budget!

Civil Legal Aid

Line Item #0321-1600

The Conference Committee has recommended the Senate’s funding level of $24 million in funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item, which funds free civil legal services that thousands of low-income residents of Massachusetts rely on each year. If Massachusetts believes in striving for 100% access to justice, this increase in funding is an absolute necessity.

The overwhelming need for increased civil legal aid continues to grow, with individuals and families in Massachusetts facing eviction, domestic violence, and other civil legal crises.

Please urge Governor Baker to adopt the Conference Committee’s recommended funding amount of $24 million in the final budget.


We’ve been fighting for these line items, which include much-needed increases in funding, since April, and you’ve been with us every step of the way. Please join us once again so that we can cross the finish line and ensure these line items make it into the final budget!

Click here to find the contact information for Governor Baker’s office. Then call or email and urge him to adopt the Conference Committee’s funding levels for support for youth experiencing homelessness, safe and supportive schools, and civil legal aid.

Thank you for your ongoing support and advocacy – we can’t do it without you!

 

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By Jake Hofstetter | Research and Policy Associate

In just two decades, cell phones have gone from convenient accessories for making calls to essential tools in our everyday lives. Without our phones we lose not only our capacity to entertain ourselves in waiting rooms, but also the ability to access a repository of information we need for every aspect of our lives. Because of our reliance on our iPhones, there are only a few places where visitors are banned from possessing cell phones: prisons, secret military installations, and, more surprisingly, 56 Massachusetts courthouses. Although well-intentioned, these bans separate court visitors and litigants from an essential tool in managing their cases, leaving many court users without attorneys at a serious disadvantage.

Cell phone bans exist to minimize distractions and make sure courthouses remain safe and confidential. Ringing phones and noises from videos or apps disrupt the functioning and integrity of legal proceedings. On the darker side, gangs or other criminals may use cell phones for photographing or intimidating witnesses and undercover police officers. Although these concerns are legitimate, they shouldn’t outweigh the harm that cell phone bans cause as well as the common-sense solutions that can prevent the misuse of cell phones without banning them.

Evidence from reporting, independent research, and the court system’s own internal investigation continue to show that cell phone bans are harmful to court users representing themselves without attorneys. A report from the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice published last summer demonstrated that cell phone bans prevent court users from presenting evidence, scheduling court dates, and referencing information needed for filling out legal forms. The fact that lawyers can bring their cell phones to court makes these policies even more unfair for those representing themselves. The court system’s own internal investigation, released by the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission last month, also found that blanket cell phone bans created “unacceptable hardships” and should be replaced with more permissive policies such as universal exceptions for those with official business at the court and storage options for facilities that truly need to prohibit cell phone use for security reasons.

Besides frustrating the efforts of those trying to represent themselves in court, cell phone bans also create serious burdens for all court visitors and users. Court users regularly use cell phones to manage childcare, transportation, and their absences from work. Since many people do not know about cell phone bans before coming to court and there are no options for storage, some court users may be left to decide whether to attend their court appearances or not. Others choose to hide their phones outside courthouses in the bushes or pay private businesses to store their phones. These options may lead to court users losing their phones or having to pay extra money, that they may not have to spare, to store them.

Most courthouses don’t need cell phone bans to be safe or orderly. In fact, many courthouses in Massachusetts (and across the country) do not have cell phone bans and function without serious disruptions or witness intimidation. Unfortunately, a minority of court users will always take calls in inappropriate places or, worse, record court proceedings for nefarious purposes. As the court system’s own internal investigation noted, however, it is fairer to court users to regulate the use of cell phones rather than the possession of cell phones. The first approach leads to reasonable policies where cell phone use can be restricted in certain facilities or courtrooms. The second approach creates an unfair burden on those who cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent them and makes it difficult for all members of our technology-attached society to use courthouses.

Changing cell phone bans in courthouses may seem like a small step, but it is an important one in expanding access to justice in Massachusetts. The growing numbers of people who must represent themselves in court already have trouble navigating our complex legal system without having to give up an essential tool like their smartphone. The court system and Access to Justice Commission deserve credit for their willingness to study this issue as well as their recognition that cell phone bans are harmful and should be replaced with more permissive and effective policies. These changes will also assure that our legal system remains fair and up to date with the rapid technological change occurring all around us.

 

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Action Alert

Thank you to everyone who raised their voices and called their state senators to advocate for our FY20 budget priorities! The Senate debates have ended, the conferees of the Conference Committee have been decided, and the next stage of this year’s budget battle has begun! You can view the finalized Senate budget here, and take a look below to read more about where we stand on our budget priorities:

Housing and Support Services for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

As you may remember, the Senate Committee on Ways & Means released its FY20 budget proposal and recommended $5 million for support and services for youth experiencing homelessness (line item 4000-0007). Since this was the funding amount advocates requested, no amendment needed to be filed! However, since the final House budget only provided $3.3 million in funding for this line item, the Conference Committee is now tasked with determining the final funding level.

The funding level proposed by the Senate is an important increase to fund vital services for one of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable populations.

Please ask your legislators to urge the Conference Committee to include the Senate funding level of $5 million in the final budget.

Safe and Supportive School Environments

To ensure that all students are empowered to succeed in school, the Safe and Supportive Schools program needs continued funding at an adequate level. We are pleased to report that the Senate Committee on Ways & Means recommended $508,128 in funding for this essential line item (7061-9612), which is slightly ABOVE last year’s funding level. Once again, this meant that there was no need to advocate for an amendment to this line item during the Senate budget debate! However, because the House provided only $400,000 in funding for the Safe and Supportive Schools line item, it will be up to the Conference Committee to determine the final funding amount.

This line item provides critical funding to continue the Safe and Supportive Schools Grant Program, which enables the development of school-wide Action Plans and facilitates the exchange of best practices, and more.

Please join us in advocating for the Senate funding level of $508,128 in the Conference Committee’s final budget.

Civil Legal Aid

Each year we advocate for increased funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) because of the overwhelming need for civil legal aid for low-income families and individuals, which continues to grow.

The MLAC line item (0321-1600) funds free civil legal services that many low-income residents of Massachusetts rely on when facing eviction, domestic violence, and other civil legal crises.

Thankfully, Senator Cynthia Creem’s amendment to increase civil legal aid funding to $24 million was included in the Senate’s final budget! While still less than the $26 million MLAC initially requested, this is a much-needed increase that is greater than the $23.6 million in funding that the House allocated.

Please ask your legislators to urge the Conference Committee to adopt the Senate’s funding amount of $24 million in the final budget.

State ID for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Senators Chandler and Welch filed Amendment #464 that would work to eliminate barriers homeless youth face in obtaining IDs.

Without state ID, youth experiencing homelessness are prevented from accomplishing many critical and daily tasks, from enrolling in education programs to something as simple as getting a library card.

The amendment would have established a process to waive the prohibitive $25 state ID card fee and created an alternative application process for those who cannot meet existing criteria (such as providing proof of residency). Unfortunately, these policy provisions were not included in the final Senate budget.

While we are disappointed by this development, we will continue to advocate for legislation currently before the Joint Transportation Committee (S.2043/H.3066), which would also ease the process for youth experiencing homelessness to obtain state ID. Click here for more information, and stay tuned to see how you can help advocate to get these common-sense reforms passed this year!


On To the Conference Committee!

The Conference Committee, made up of six legislators – three representatives, three senators – will review both the House and Senate budgets and work to reconcile any differences. The Committee has until July 1st to pass a final reconciled budget and send it to Governor Baker’s desk for approval.

This is a decisive moment for our budget priorities, and we can’t do it without you. When you contact your legislators in support of these funding levels, especially at this final hurdle, you’re helping ensure some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable communities are supported and empowered to succeed in 2020.

Click here to find your legislator’s contact information. Then call or email both your state senator and representative and ask them to urge the members of the Conference Committee (listed below) to adopt the Senate funding levels for each of these important line items described above.

Thank you for your ongoing support and advocacy. With your help, we can ensure these crucial line items receive the funding they need in the coming year.

 

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Kristen Graves, Board Member

Can you tell me how you first got involved with MA Appleseed? What drew you to the mission?

I applied for a summer internship with MA Appleseed after my first year of law school, but I did not get the job! Instead, I ended up working for the City of Boston as a legislative assistant for the Boston City Council. Around that time, Board member Lawrence Friedman invited me to work with the Marketing Committee at Appleseed. We ended up organizing a big Board retreat and did a lot of strategic planning and organizational soul-searching. We hired a new Executive Director, streamlined our project portfolio, and developed a signature project. We also started the Good Apple Reception, both as a way to highlight “Good Doobies,” but also as a way to generate funds. Once I graduated law school and started working for Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) as a public defender, I was invited to join the Board.

I saw it as another opportunity to engage in social justice work from a systemic angle, with really smart, really well-connected people.

You weren’t just a Board member – you were actually the interim Executive Director for a period of time! Can you talk a little bit about that?

I was the interim Executive Director during my third year of law school and was asked to step in during a leadership transition. I helped run the Board meetings, hired interns for the summer, overhauled the office, and generally kept the lights on during a tough time for the organization. Afterwards, I went off to study for the bar exam, and the Board went on to hire the Great Joan Meschino as the new Executive Director! By then, the National Appleseed Center had a new Executive Director as well, and a great fundraising model. We used it ourselves, and that was our first Good Apple Reception. It was a game-changer for us.

What has surprised you most about working with MA Appleseed?

How much everyone is looking for ways to make a genuine impact.

What is your favorite memory from your time with MA Appleseed?

That moment when I looked at the financials and realized we actually had a budget and money to pay staff and work on projects. When I started working for MA Appleseed, we had maybe $5,000 in the bank.

What projects have been most meaningful to you?

The School-to-Prison Pipeline. I remember encountering the issue when I was interning for CPCS in their juvenile defender unit. I started talking to a few folks at Harvard Law School and the Georgia and Texas Appleseeds about the scope of the problem. I wasn’t sure what role MA Appleseed could play, but I knew we had to get involved in this issue. At that time, MA Appleseed was looking for a signature project and this seemed to be a good fit for us.

You’re a public defender, on the front lines of this kind of work. What’s your personal philosophy about access to justice?

That there isn’t enough of it. There’s more access to justice for criminal defendants than for any other litigants, thanks to Gideon. When I think of access to justice within the context of my work as a public defender, I think about it more in terms of having access to affordable and competent counsel. There needs to be a civil Gideon.

You’re departing from the MA Appleseed Board of Directors this year. Do you have any advice for current and future Board members, or any final thoughts with which to leave the organization?

Keep your eyes peeled. There are plenty of everyday issues that need to be addressed systemically. When you come across something in your daily work that doesn’t seem right, figure out how to leverage MA Appleseed’s resources to address it. Chances are pretty high that you aren’t the only one who has noticed that something about that needs to change.

Kristen Graves joined the Board of Directors of Massachusetts Appleseed in 2007, and we thank her for the years of passion and energy she has dedicated to promoting equal rights and opportunities for all Massachusetts residents.

 

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“Each line item, each number, is much more than just a number. It is a statement of the Senate’s priorities and our values and what we hold dear.”

Senate President Karen Spilka

With the House budget settled, it’s the Senate’s turn to look ahead towards 2020. The Senate Committee on Ways & Means released its budget earlier this month, and while several of the line items we support have been fully funded, there is still a funding gap for one critical issue — civil legal aid. And there’s also a chance to advance opportunities for youth experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. Please take a moment and check out our budget priorities below and the amendments Senators Creem, Eldridge, Chandler, and Welch have filed for civil legal aid and for youth experiencing homelessness.

Your vocal support for these amendments and line items makes all the difference, and we can’t do this without you. Please join us and call your State Senator to ensure these key areas are fully funded and included in the Senate’s final budget!

First, the Good News…

Safe and Supportive School Environments

The Safe and Supportive Schools law, passed in 2014, was enacted to make the vision of safe and supportive whole-school cultures that address many barriers to learning a reality. I’m pleased to report that the Senate Committee on Ways & Means has recommended slightly above level funding ($500,000) for the Safe and Supportive Schools line item (7061-9612). This funding will be used to continue the Safe and Supportive Schools Grant Program, develop school-wide Action Plans, collect feedback from students, and more.

Youth Homelessness: Housing and Support Services

The Senate Committee on Ways & Means has recommended $5 million for housing and supportive services for youth experiencing homelessness (line item 4000-0007)! With reports of youth homelessness on the rise, it is critical that the state continue to invest in long-term solutions to build on past progress and provide much-needed support to vulnerable youth in Massachusetts. We look forward to advocating for the Senate’s recommendation when the Conference Committee convenes!

Budget Amendments That Need Your Support!

Civil Legal Aid

Civil legal aid organizations are often the last place low-income residents facing a civil legal crisis can turn to. For those dealing with life-altering legal issues such as eviction, domestic violence, and more, civil legal aid is a lifeline. We thank the Senate Committee on Ways & Means for recommending $22 million in its budget for civil legal aid, an increase of $1 million over last year.

But with civil legal aid organizations forced to turn away a MAJORITY of eligible residents seeking help every year, it’s still not enough.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Senate Judiciary Chair Jamie Eldridge have filed Amendment #976 to increase funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item (0321-1600) to $24 million.

As Senate President Karen Spilka said, the budget is a statement of our priorities and our values. We know civil legal aid is among our priorities, and we know it’s among yours. We must ensure it’s among the Senate’s as well.

Click here for more information about this issue.

Action You Can Take:

Click here to find your State Senator’s contact information TODAY and ask them to support Amendment #976.

Youth Homelessness: Massachusetts State ID

Without government-issued identification, youth experiencing homelessness are unable to complete many important and routine tasks, such as opening a bank account, enrolling in education programs, getting a library card, entering certain government buildings, and more. Right now, there are barriers in place that prevent youth experiencing homelessness from easily obtaining ID.

Some service providers for people experiencing homelessness estimate that half of their clients lack identification cards.

While we will continue to advocate for the passage of a refiled bill throughout the year that would eliminate these barriers, Senators Chandler and Welch have filed Amendment #464 that would address this issue now!

This amendment would establish a process to waive the $25 state ID card fee for youth experiencing homelessness (adding $50,000 to the Transportation Trust Fund, line item 1595-6368) and create an alternative application process if they cannot meet existing criteria (such as providing proof of residency). These are common-sense reforms that will enable youth experiencing homelessness to access the life-saving resources they need.

Click here for more information about this issue.

Action You Can Take:

Click here to find your State Senator’s contact information TODAY and ask them to support Amendment #464.


This time of year is so important, and I want to thank you for raising your voice and helping us get this year’s budget battles off to a great start.

By ensuring Amendments #976 and 464 are included in the Senate’s budget, we will have a better chance of obtaining adequate funding for civil legal aid and support for youth experiencing homelessness in the final budget that the legislature sends to the Governor this summer. Please call your State Senator and urge them to include civil legal aid and state ID for youth experiencing homelessness in their FY20 priorities.

Thank you for your continued support and advocacy.

 

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Thank you to everyone who raised their voices and called their State Representatives to advocate for our FY20 budget priorities! The House budget debates have come to an end, and the results are in. And as is often the case with the state budget, the results are…mixed. To see the full, finalized House budget, click here. For a deeper dive into our budget priorities – safe and supportive school environments, civil legal aid, and youth homelessness – read more below.

Safe and Supportive School Environments

Adequate funding to continue the implementation of the Safe and Supportive Schools program is necessary to ensure that all students are empowered to succeed in school. However, last month the House rejected Rep. Ruth Balser’s Amendment #1099 to maintain funding at $500,000, instead reducing funding for this line item to $400,000.

The Safe and Supportive Schools law was passed in 2014 to support an expansive and innovative vision of safe and supportive whole-school cultures that address many barriers to learning in Massachusetts schools.

But without level funding in 2020, the Safe and Supportive Schools Grant Program, statewide conferences and leadership summits, a second independent evaluation of all activities, and more may go unfunded. We will advocate for $500,000 – the same amount as last year – for inclusion in the Senate in order to continue this vital work.

Click here for more information about this issue.

Civil Legal Aid

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item (0321-1600) funds free legal services in civil matters for low-income residents of Massachusetts and is an enormously important component of the fight to ensure access to justice in the Commonwealth.

For low-income families facing devastating civil legal aid problems – such as eviction or domestic violence, civil legal services, funded by MLAC, are often their last hope.

The House increased civil legal funding to $23.6 million in its final budget. This is an improvement from the budget recommendations initially released by the House Committee on Ways & Means, but less than Rep. Balser requested in Amendment #1095 and much less than MLAC’s original request of $26 million. Thank you for your advocacy to bring us this far, and we look forward to fighting for the full requested increase in the Senate.

Click here for more information about this issue.

Youth Homelessness

Housing and Support Services

Despite reports of youth homelessness on the rise in Massachusetts, the House rejected Rep. James O’Day’s Amendment #883, which would have increased funding for services and support for youth experiencing homelessness to a much-needed $5 million.

Increased funding for this line item (4000-0007) is vital if we are going to build on past progress and create a sustained, systematic, and effective response to end youth homelessness in Massachusetts.

We are deeply disappointed that the House failed to increase funding for these critical programs to support youth experiencing homelessness, and will continue to push for increased funding in the Senate.

Click here for more information about this issue.

Massachusetts State ID

Government issued identification is necessary to complete many crucial and daily tasks, such as opening a bank account, enrolling in education programs, getting a library card, entering certain government buildings, and more.

But youth experiencing homelessness face several barriers that often prevent them from obtaining ID.

Rep. Kay Khan refiled a bill addressing this issue again this year (despite broad support, the bill failed to pass last session) and she also filed two amendments to the House budget that would have helped eliminate the barriers youth experiencing homelessness face now.

Unfortunately, Rep. Khan’s budget amendments were also not adopted by the House last month. While we will continue to advocate for the refiled bill seeking to solve this throughout this legislative session, we are hopeful that the Senate will include similar language in their proposed budget. Including this language in the final FY20 budget would allow youth experiencing homelessness to access IDs sooner rather than later.

These changes to ensure youth experiencing homelessness are able to obtain state ID should not be controversial. These are common-sense reforms that repair the damage insurmountable hurdles – such as a $25 application fee or requiring a permanent address – have caused for our most vulnerable youth.

Click here for more information about this issue.


So there it is…the first stage of the 2020 budget battle is over. And when it comes to our students, our low-income neighbors, our young people most in-need, we have one thing to say to the Legislature: We must do better.

Thank you for raising your voice and standing up for these key line items in the state budget. The Senate Committee on Ways & Means is scheduled to release its budget recommendations TOMORROW, with amendments due this Friday at noon, and we hope you join us again! Each and every time you reach out to your State Legislators and lend your voice to the chorus calling out on behalf of indigent communities, you are bringing us one step closer to a more equal and just Massachusetts.

 

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By Jake Hofstetter | Research and Policy Associate

In the wake of the massacres in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, the Trump administration proposed several steps, such as arming teachers, to improve school safety. In addition to these proposals, the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her Commission on School Safety released a report that also contained an unrelated policy change — rescinding the Obama administration’s school discipline reforms. Doing away with this policy doesn’t decrease the chances of school shootings. It doesn’t make schools safer. But it does allow schools to discipline students more freely and without considering the harm and racial discrimination that occurs when kids are removed from class.

The Obama administration’s school discipline recommendations were a step in the right direction. The 2014 guidelines recommended school administrators use removals from class or school less frequently due to the harm caused to students’ academic performance. Besides the lack of evidence showing removals improved behavior, these practices were (and still are) having a disproportionate impact on minority students and those with disabilities. To take the place of removals from class, the Obama guidelines encouraged more restorative discipline practices. These policies focused on students’ social and emotional well-being in order to foster safe, nurturing schools. To enforce these guidelines, the Obama administration warned of investigations into schools with serious racial disparities in discipline. Despite the evidence against harsh school discipline practices, the Secretary DeVos’ Commission cancelled the Obama guidelines, citing concerns for school safety and local control over education. School safety matters of course, but there’s something willfully old-fashioned in the administration’s desire to allow harmful school discipline practices to continue for the sake of “maintaining order.”

Admittedly school discipline may seem straightforward and uncontroversial to a lot of Americans. A student breaks the rules, his or her name gets called over the loudspeaker to report to the principal’s office, and the student gets punished. Yet the type of punishment matters a lot. Taking students out of class through detention or suspension harms their chances at academic success. Plus, there’s evidence the practice doesn’t stop misbehavior. We also shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that disciplining students is neutral. Black and Latino students are disciplined at greater rates than their white peers even when controlling for poverty and discipline type. Without the threat of federal investigation, there’s no way to tell how school districts across the country will respond. The Obama guidelines may have converted some districts to more effective discipline approaches, but others may return to harmful practices that will lead to worse outcomes for minority, disabled, and LGBT students.

Even though we can’t guarantee what will happen in schools across the country, Massachusetts can continue this important work. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education deserves praise and recognition for its commitment to the principles laid out in the Obama administration’s guidelines despite the new stance of the federal government. Massachusetts Appleseed will also remain committed to our efforts to reform school discipline practices and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Through our Keep Kids in Class project, Massachusetts Appleseed has provided know-your-rights guides for parents, advocated for less exclusionary discipline practices in schools, and published original research on the state of school discipline across Massachusetts. Despite changes in Washington D.C., we remain dedicated to removing barriers to access to public education and supporting at-risk youth to keep kids in class where they are safe, supported, and free to learn.

 

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It’s over! The formal session of the Legislature ended at midnight on Tuesday, which means, although the Legislature will continue to meet in informal sessions, action on the most remaining controversial legislation will be tabled until January 2019.

So what are the results? Read more below about how our priorities fared in the FY19 budget and what happened with a bill to break down barriers for homeless youth.

The FY19 State Budget

The state budget is incredibly important to the people in need we fight these legislative battles on behalf of. We’ve seen what happens when funding disappears – just last year, a Cambridge shelter serving LGBTQ youth came within inches of closing its doors for good.

Not this time.

I couldn’t be more pleased to report that all – yes, ALL – of the priorities you helped us fight for made it in!

You raised your voice in the House. You emailed your Senators. You pushed the Conference Committee. You picked up the phone and called Governor Baker. You took action, and it worked.

That means:

Civil Legal Aid: Funded at $21.04 million, a mere $2 million shy of MLAC’s initial request and a $3 million increase over last year. That’s $3 million more going to provide critical free legal services to those who cannot afford an attorney!

The Housing Court Expansion: Fully funded at $2.6 million, a huge win for expanding access to justice into areas of the state where people need it most!

Language Requiring Schools to Publish Meal Charge Policies: Included, and an important step forward in the ongoing fight to end lunch shaming and protect low-income students.

Support for Homeless Youth: Funded at 3.3 million, a huge increase from last year!

Task Force to Tackle Language Access in Schools: Language was included in the budget to establish this task force which will help to ensure schools are fulfilling their obligation to communicate effectively with limited English proficient parents about their child’s education!

For joining us in this series of budget battles and sticking by us for months, thank you.

For standing up and demanding a better, fairer Massachusetts, thank you.

For these remarkable victories, thank you.

Homeless ID Bill

Now the bad news.

Despite our best efforts, Senate Bill 2568, An Act to provide identification to homeless youth and families, did not pass before the end of the formal legislative session. This bill is a common sense reform measure that would make it easier for homeless youth to obtain state identification.

Without state ID, homeless youth cannot apply for a job, enroll in education programs, get a library card, or accomplish a number of other important, everday tasks. This bill would have eliminated the $25 fee and eased the path towards getting a state ID for homeless applicants. It could have made a big difference in the lives of homeless youth around the state.

We’re disappointed the Legislature was unable to pass Senate Bill 2568 before the formal session ended. But we aren’t giving up. This bill passed the Senate unanimously and we still have hope that, working with our community partners, we can get it passed by the House during informal sessions. Stay tuned as we work to make this happen!

 

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