One of the Most Important Civil and Human Rights Battles of Our Time

Criminal justice systems across the country have come to accept, and perpetuate, a shameful standard of justice for poor people.  The basic humanity of the indigent accused is too often denied, and the democratic necessity of access to effective counsel is too often ignored.

Gideon’s Promise is a movement of hundreds of public defenders nationwide who are working together to change this unacceptable status quo.

In 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, civil rights abuses were prevalent and devastating in the arena of criminal justice. So it is no coincidence that during that same year, the United States Supreme Court sought to address the role that race and class played in the administration of criminal justice.

In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court required that the state provide poor people accused of a crime with an attorney.  It noted that a layperson simply cannot effectively navigate the labyrinth of laws and procedures that make up the criminal justice system.  Only the right to counsel would ensure that a person accused of a crime would receive justice.

But the right to counsel is only meaningful if state-appointed attorneys have the same skill, training, resources, and level of commitment as lawyers who represent people with means.  As I began working on criminal justice reform efforts across the South a decade ago, I saw systems that fell far short of providing basic standards of representation for poor people. I met countless young public defenders who had begun their careers filled with enthusiasm, only to have the passion beaten out of them by a system that effectively expects public defenders to help process poor people into prison cells.

There is no greater threat to equal justice than when our public defenders are beaten into submission.

These lawyers were deprived of the resources, training, and support they needed to live up to their constitutional obligation. They were forced to handle crushing caseloads that didn’t allow them to give the time their clients deserved and needed. Many began to feel hopeless and eventually quit. Others were worn down, resigned to the status quo. A few remained inspired, continuing the Sisyphean task of fighting a system that had abandoned its quest for equal justice. But all too often these individuals were like a lone voice screaming against a deafening wind.

In 2007, my wife and I founded Gideon’s Promise to build a strong community of public defenders who would have the training and support necessary to immediately improve the standard of representation for their clients.  We wanted to develop this community into a movement—one focused on changing a criminal justice culture that is anything but just, and pushing back against the forces that pressure public defenders to simply process clients.

Gideon’s Promise began with just 16 young public defenders drawn from two offices.  To date, more than 300 public defenders in 15 states have participated in our initial, three-year training and support program. A national faculty comprised of more than 60 experienced public defenders volunteer as our trainers and mentors.  We have added programs that serve our graduates, senior lawyers, and public defender leaders. With more than 35 “partner” public defender offices, Gideon’s Promise is changing the landscape of public defense for tens of thousands of people who depend on court-appointed counsel each year. Through partnerships with law schools, we are also creating a pipeline for recent graduates to join our effort where the need is greatest. Finally, by working with jurisdictions across the nation to share our model, Gideon’s Promise has indeed evolved into a comprehensive movement of inspired public defenders committed to transforming criminal justice in America.

There is no greater threat to equal justice than when our public defenders are beaten into submission.  At that point, a poor person accused of a crime has no chance. But through a strong and supportive community like Gideon’s Promise, lawyers for the poor can stay inspired and continue to fight one of the least popular, but most important, civil and human rights battles of our day.



Money, Politics & Poverty

Give Directly has garnered a lot of attention lately for advocating and implementing a radical new approach to fighting poverty in Kenya and Uganda: unconditional cash transfers.

The NGO simply targets places where there is extreme poverty and provides individuals with direct transfers of cash. In order to do this they are utilizing digital technology – providing people with cell phones and then making mobile account payments to them.

Joy Sun, the Chief Operating Officer of Give Directly and a veteran aid worker, said that aid workers in the past acted on two assumptions that proved to be wrong: 1) that the poor were poor because they were uneducated and made bad choices; and 2) that they required educated aid workers to tell them what they needed in order to get out of poverty, and how to do it.

This approach demanded a large and expensive workforce of aid workers, along with huge transfers of materials – food, agricultural equipment, housing, and infrastructure supplies.

According to Sun, a 2011 report from Shapiro & Raj  – an independent investment research and consulting firm – for every $100 in allocated resources, it costs another $99.00 to provide and service them. The report also said that more than 30% of the recipients of aid materials sold them for cash.

In July, in her TED Talk in New York City, Sun confided that many aid workers were skeptical of Give Directly’s new approach.  They feared that the cash recipients would use the money to pay for non-essential personal items – and to not work.  But according to Give Directly the data so far refutes that notion; that in fact the people who received unconditional cash transfers invested better, worked harder and made more substantial gains towards moving out of poverty than those who received more traditional forms of material aid alone.

“Dozens of studies show across the board that people use cash transfers to improve their own lives,” said Sun.

There are critics of this program, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They don’t question the merits or effectiveness of unconditional cash transfers; they just caution that it’s too early to tell what the long-term effects of this approach will be.

Fair enough.

We need that violent intellectual revolution that allows us to respond to issues fundamental to the wellbeing of our democracy

But as I wrote in a previous article for Talk Poverty, we clearly need a paradigm shift in how we perceive the poor and treat poverty. I quoted Thomas Kuhn who describes paradigm shifts as points of “intellectually violent revolutions” through which “one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”

I believe that unconditional cash transfers via mobile payments represent the kind of policy change that can indeed contribute to a paradigm shift in our approach to poverty. If the empirical evidence contradicts long-held beliefs about why people are poor, and how to help them work their way out of poverty—how should that inform how we deal with poverty in America?  In real terms, there are more than 46 million Americans living today with daily chronic food and housing insecurity, many of them children. Certainly, no one can claim we are using a winning formula for eliminating poverty in America.

What is the biggest obstacle to changing non-working approaches and adapting more evidence-based ones for eliminating poverty in America?  It’s the same problem plaguing American public policy in general: willful, well-funded ignorance cynically masquerading as political ideology.

If many of our politicians can deny that there is a relation between carbon emissions and climate change; or that an obscene proliferation of guns in this society is not related to the increasing number of senseless killings taking place regularly in our country; they can, and no doubt will, ignore any empirical evidence that proves transferring money directly to people who are poor will help end poverty.

We need that violent intellectual revolution—one that allows us to respond to issues that are so fundamental to the wellbeing of our democracy, including poverty.



In Our Backyard Interview: Safety from Domestic Violence is an Economic Issue

Last month, we observed Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. DVAM represents a time for communities to come together to support survivors of domestic violence and the dedicated advocates working to keep them safe. To commemorate DVAM, we are publishing an interview with a group of staff members with DC Survivors and Advocates For Empowerment (DC SAFE), an organization that “ensures the safety and self-determination for survivors of domestic violence in the Washington, DC area through emergency services, court advocacy and system reform.”

Disclosure: Alyssa Peterson previously served as a volunteer domestic violence advocate with the organization.

Alyssa Peterson: How does economic security matter in domestic violence cases?

DC SAFE: If the abuser and the victim are living together, she has limited options. Most people of an average income wouldn’t be able to just go and put themselves up in a hotel on zero notice. If you don’t have family or friends in the city, it’s two-hundred dollars a night for a hotel. If it’s thirty degrees out, you can’t just go sleep on a park bench—if that’s even an option for anybody. If you have children, it’s even more complicated. So, having access to housing, or money for housing, is one of the biggest barriers to getting away from the abuser.

Domestic violence is said to affect people equally across sections of society regardless of income, but [that’s] not what we experience. And that’s mostly because those with income can handle domestic violence on more of a self-help basis, whereas those without income are forced to resort to [public] services and place their violence that they’re experiencing out into the open. Somebody with means can put themselves up into a hotel [or] can hire an attorney to divorce somebody and seek assets. Those without means are going to have to come to the D.C. Superior Courthouse and seek emergency housing through the city.

Alyssa: Can you all explain a little bit about your work?

DC SAFE: One of our programs is called the Court Advocacy Program (CAP). We accompany clients to court, provide them emotional support, [and] we can also work on different things that happen in court like warrants.

We can also refer survivors to different social services, including Crime Victims Compensation, which is an organization run by the government and the court systems that assists and gives some financial support to victims of crime in D.C. We [also] have several partner agencies that provide free legal services to survivors of domestic violence. We can also refer and place individuals in our shelter program, and provide them with referrals for counseling [or] forensic nurse examinations.

We assist with running our 24-hour help line, OCAP. We do things like book emergency housing, get lock changes, safety plan, [and] talk victims through both the civil and legal remedies that are available to them, often referring them to come to the intake center if they want to talk to an advocate or file for a protective order. Transportation is also something, especially [to get] to a safe place or a courthouse.

Alyssa: We’ve seen a massive shortage in affordable housing.  Has that put a lot of pressure on your services?

DC SAFE: Absolutely. One of [our] top concerns when we meet with survivors is where is [the survivor] supposed to go?

If you have a client that can transfer to a different county in Maryland—that looks very different from a client who’s really stuck in the housing system in D.C. Some people were on [a] waiting list for a long time which could be as long as 10 years or more in many cases—[they] are afraid to leave their situation because they don’t want to lose that spot.  They don’t want to be with the abuser, but they don’t want to lose this place that they finally got to after all these years.

Having access to housing, or money for housing, is one of the biggest barriers to getting away from the abuser.

Then, if you look at the homeless systems, the challenges there are that we work on a crisis basis and [the homeless system] may not be working on a crisis basis. [The homeless systems] may take months for them to take a client. Or there may be sobriety rules that a client can’t adhere to. If you have a program that requires that a client have documented clean time for sixty days, and we’re a crisis shelter [with maximum stay period of less than sixty days], then there’s no way that those numbers are going to match up. Even if my client is saying: “I want to be clean, I’ve been clean since the moment I got here,” that’s still over a month left before the client can even begin to think about getting into these programs.

Alyssa: Is the shelter system even a real option for survivors?

DC SAFE: It’s not ideal. Usually, the conversation is [that] if you have kids and you need an emergency shelter, and you aren’t getting in a transitional program [(another housing option for survivors)], you’re going to be leaving the district. There just aren’t options really here currently. For people who face multiple levels of trauma, going into a shelter [means] there’s little observation of what’s happening, or sharing rooms with multiple people. That may cause [survivors] to face other levels of trauma. [Survivors] may be victimized in those shelters. And then there’s the fact that [you usually] have to take your stuff with you every single day when you leave, it’s so much easier for someone to find you when you’re out on the street every day.

And ultimately, we believe that a survivor knows her situation better than anybody else in the whole world. She or he is the only one that knows what’s best, so we have some situations where they may choose option B as opposed to going to a shelter. That’s an empowered decision and we support that. It can be very difficult when you have a limited number of options. As a society, we have created a system where people really have a lack of choices.

Alyssa: Do you see a lot of survivors in a situation where an abuser has harmed their credit or economic wellbeing?

DC SAFE: Credit is a continuing issue and it’s something that we’re trying to find more resources [to address]. Even a client who has the option to transfer [to alternative low-income housing], we may see that because of back rent, they may not be able to transfer until they pay that off. The reason that they may not have paid it off is because of financial manipulation that happened with the abuser.

Which is why there’s a real need for second chance housing in the District for people who have credit issues and need to be able to prove income.

In addition, [survivors] may have wages in cash. They have wages that may be much easier to steal and manipulate. And of course, sometimes the abuser is borrowing money. He keeps borrowing. He borrows a hundred here, two hundred there, and never pays it back. And suddenly, the victim is out two-thousand dollars that she’s just been fronting to him out of her paycheck, and she can’t pay rent.

Alyssa: Are there other things that D.C. is doing specifically that help the economic security of survivors?

DC SAFE: D.C. is starting to recognize domestic violence as an extremely serious issue, as opposed to something that should stay inside the home. Every agency is continuing to take this very seriously. [D.C. has] some of the most progressive policies surrounding domestic violence.

D.C. has sick and safe leave.  You can take sick time and you can also take safe time. So, you can take time off of work, utilizing your sick days to get safe if you are experiencing domestic violence.

[But] there remains a ton of work to be done. It’s great that that law is in place, but it isn’t going to do very much for a tipped worker or a low-income [worker] who has no idea what sick and safe leave is; or an employer who is going to look at a sick and safe leave request and just not [allow it]. So, there’s a lot of work to do in outreach and enforcement.

Survivors in D.C. also have the right to break their lease early with no penalties, which is fantastic. So, if a survivor just signed a lease in January, [it] may be actually one of the reasons that they may not report [domestic violence]. They may say I just signed this in January. They may say I’ll just stay here and keep the doors locked and then in a year when I feel like I can move, I can.

And then when you tell people—and this is something people don’t really know—and I was meeting with someone today and I said, “Let’s write up this template together.” It’s a letter from the survivor. It’s something from her that she gives to the landlord that explains what her rights are. She signs it and then she’s theoretically supposed to be able to move two weeks later. I think that’s very helpful.

Alyssa: Are there other programs to support low-income survivors?

DC SAFE: The D.C. Department of Human Services does have a domestic violence work exemption for TANF [(Temporary Assistance to Needy Families)]. If [a TANF recipient] is a domestic violence survivor, not only can they be exempted from the work requirement for three months, with the option of re-opting after three months, but they can also be referred to counseling and case management.

Alyssa: I’ve read studies that the TANF exemption is underutilized. Is that the case in D.C.?

DC SAFE: Last year, they had a grand total of three exceptions granted because people just didn’t ask for it. People don’t know. Because of the vast bureaucracy of the D.C. Department of Human Services, it makes it almost impossible for a client to know how to navigate [the system]. [A survivor has] to get a referral letter from an advocate that would be faxed to a certain person [in the Department of Human Services], and then a follow up call would have to be made to that person, who would then have the client verify, and then work through the process of initiating a work exemption.

That’s the entire reason that SAFE exists because clients can’t navigate the system on their own. It’s bureaucratic, it’s byzantine… you need an MSW to know how to access all the services that you’re entitled to. And [survivors are] dealing with their court case, and finding housing and child care, and a new job, or whatever. They need to focus on doing that, and then we can focus on advocacy piece.

And when you’ve spent years being beaten down by somebody who’s trying to make you not advocate for yourself… Your abuser’s been telling you for however long that everything is your fault; that you’re a terrible person. So why do you feel comfortable advocating for yourself? You need somebody to tell you that you have a right to these services—somebody who can help you connect with the agencies and tell you that you deserve them.




How Voter ID Laws Affect Women of Color

Headlines are telling a bleak story this election season, particularly for women of color.

Fast food and home care workers—the vast majority of them minority women who are living in poverty—have been striking for a living wage. Middle class and low-income families across the country are struggling to make ends meet. And while they are busy fighting to provide for their families and earn a living, their constitutional right to vote—to participate in democracy, to voice their opinions on the policies that shape this country—is under attack.

On a recent press call to discuss grassroots efforts to engage voters in Minnesota, Alice Flowers, a grandmother, spoke of her own experiences with economic insecurity.  But the point she made that really stuck with me was about the threat she feels to her voting rights.

“I can’t help but think we’re having to fight the same battles my parents fought in segregated Mississippi,” she said. “And that’s just not right.”

Under some states’ new restrictive voter ID laws, individuals must have a state-issued photo ID that matches the name on their voter registration cards. For women in the low-wage workforce—approximately two-thirds of whom are women of color—the time and cost of acquiring a photo ID are real barriers.

Imagine you live in Texas, several hours away from the nearest DMV. You’re a working mother with a chaotic shift schedule, trying to pay bills and care for your family. Maybe you were married and hyphenated your name, and now your photo ID and voter registration card don’t match. Maybe you never even had a state-issued photo ID to begin with. In these kinds of instances, the new laws will prevent you from voting, even if you were a registered voter in the past.  Under the guise of protecting our democratic process, these laws succeed only in disenfranchising low-income women of color and others, and threatening our democratic process.

Women are consistently overrepresented in the number of people who are affected by these voter restrictions. In North Carolina, for example, women represent 54% of voters in the state, but they comprise 64% of the voters who are unable to vote under the new laws. That’s more than 200,000 disenfranchised women voters, and for women of color the data is even worse. While black women represented less than 24% of all women registered to vote in the state in 2012, they made up more than 34% of the registered women voters who didn’t have the necessary photo ID.

Texas has one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.  In fact, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked the state from enforcing it, concluding that Republican lawmakers had intentionally acted to decrease voter turnout of the growing minority population.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is allowing the law to be implemented in the upcoming election while it is appealed, and as a result more than 600,000 registered voters might be disenfranchised, including a disproportionate number of minority Texans.

These laws are being pushed at the state level by conservative lawmakers who claim that they are protecting elections from voter fraud, but the voter fraud doesn’t exist. A report by the US Government Accountability Office in September 2014 found that the Department of Justice reported “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation charged by DOJ’s Criminal Division or by U.S. Attorney’s offices anywhere in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.” But there is certainly evidence that voter ID laws keep many women from voting on the issues that matter to them—like increasing the minimum wage, requiring equal pay for equal work, creating paid family and sick leave, and providing affordable child and elder care—and from kicking out the politicians who support these discriminatory laws.

Ultimately, the new voting restrictions need to be struck down by the Supreme Court.  But until then, those of us who can vote, must vote—and must use our vote to ensure that the voices of women of color are heard at the polls.



2014 Torchlight Prize Winners: The Power of Community-led Collective Action

Every day in communities across the United States, regular people are coming together to imagine, create, and demand better futures for themselves and their communities. While they occasionally make the news, more often their efforts go unnoticed.

In Detroit, elders volunteer to patrol their neighborhoods, using walkie-talkies to communicate and to combat break-ins. In San Francisco, several women created their own support group called Solutions for Women that encourages emotional wellness and promotes education.  In Boston, a group of neighbors converted a vacant, trash-filled, city owned lot into a gardening space with compost, flower beds, and a rainwater-catching system that allows them to grow food, learn about urban agriculture, and build community.

Until we recognize and hold up these collective efforts, we will miss critical lessons about how we can effectively tackle the issues our communities care about – like community safety, social justice, economic mobility, and better health.

A few months ago on, Family Independence Initiative Founder Mauricio Lim Miller issued a call for nominations for the 3rd annual Torchlight Prize – a national award, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) established to publically recognize the leadership, skill, and initiative demonstrated by self-organized community groups. Here are the winners—each will receive a $10,000 prize in recognition of their efforts to improve and strengthen their communities:

El Valle Women’s Collaborative is based in the rural town of Ribera, New Mexico. The founding members created the group to address a unique set of environmental and economic challenges faced by families in their community. Their goal: to strengthen their economy so they could work where they live and create a safe space for neighbors to gather and engage in community-building events and activities.  The group has established several projects in pursuit of their mission, including El Valle Thrift Exchange, a retail thrift store that allows customers to pay what they can afford instead of a set price; Earn and Learn, a small business development training program; and Bueno Para Todos Cooperative, which supports local farmers in taking their produce to market.

HOLA Ohio was founded to improve opportunities for the Latino community in northeast Ohio through organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement. In the early 2000s, the population of immigrant workers grew exponentially and led to clashes with the established community, as well as labor abuses, discrimination, and disparities in healthcare and education. What started as a small, informal group of Latino immigrants in Painesville, Ohio, has since grown into four chapters that have influenced immigration policy both locally and nationally. The group has saved many immigrants from incarceration and family separation due to deportation. Through political education, HOLA empowers its members who previously lived in fear on the margins of society.

Facing one of the highest crime rates in the country—and following the murder of a young resident—community members in North Oakland, California organized the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council to examine ways to sustainably curb violence in their neighborhood. The group meets every month to review evictions, shootings, and other local conflicts.  They also organize trainings, fundraisers, healing circles, and other approaches to preventing, treating, and managing interpersonal and institutional community violence. In 2015, the group will launch a restorative justice alternative sentencing pilot project to help bring an end to the “preschool to prison” pipeline for youth in North Oakland.  

Finally, KhushDC, is a volunteer-supported group that promotes awareness and acceptance—along with fostering positive cultural and sexual identity—for members of the South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community. KhushDC organizes advocacy initiatives to address the criminalization of homosexuality and hate crimes due to race, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. The group also collaborates with other LGBTQ organizations in the DC metropolitan area to host discussion groups, participate in Gay Pride events, and organize other social events that build a sense of community.

These Torchlight Prize winners represent a small sample of the powerful work that’s happening in communities across the country.  They show us that by working together, families and communities can achieve powerful and sustainable results and tackle some of our nation’s most pressing social and economic challenges. They also remind us that in addition to pushing for policy solutions, we need to examine and support the collective work being done by community based organizations to spur economic and social mobility.

A different way forward is possible, and by working together, we can make change happen.

Author’s note: Learn more about this year’s winners and finalists, and read about past honorees, on the Torchlight Prize website.