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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