Florida abandoned legal aid. Jacksonville can fix that
COMMENTARY | Mayor Lenny Curry’s proposed $1.4 billion budget — paired with a planned $500 million in park improvements, road resurfacings, sewer and water line extensions and drainage work — is among the most ambitious spending plans in Jacksonville’s recent history, representing persistently elusive progress toward addressing long-neglected needs in every corner of the city.
There is at least one small step left to take.
Unlike defendants facing criminal charges, people mired in civil legal problems — wrongful evictions, wrongful foreclosures, medically needy patients improperly booted off Medicaid, senior citizens bilked by unscrupulous contractors, veterans fighting for custody of their children — have no right to an attorney no matter how financially strapped they are or how unjust their story. A patchwork of remarkable organizations across the state like Jacksonville Area Legal Aid are their last and often only line of defense.
But those groups have been abandoned by the Legislature and the governor; Florida is one of only three states that fails to provides its legal aid organizations public money. They are also under assault by a strangely hostile Florida Supreme Court, which earlier this summer ordered a series of inexplicable, ill-advised and poorly researched changes restricting the way such groups can spend some of their meager annual funding from the Florida Bar Foundation — changes that were strongly opposed by lawyers across the political spectrum.
In many cities, local governments budget money these groups can spend far more flexibly. Jacksonville, however, has long failed to do so, despite the fact that nearly half of the city’s population qualifies for the free legal services Jacksonville Area Legal Aid provides.
Curry can rightly claim his budget aims to right historical wrongs and plants the seeds for future progress. Neighborhoods that were decades ago promised basic infrastructure, like city water and sewer lines, will finally begin to see it. Parks across the city could get a massive infusion of $100 million over the next two years. The city is actually investing in resiliency — $10 million next year.
Curry should celebrate those efforts, but he and the City Council should also hear this modest plea: The work isn’t quite finished.
Strong return on investment
Lawyers who do this work are paid criminally meager sums — comparable to public defenders or less — even as they are regarded as incredibly competent and effective. They win a lot; more than what is considered normal. And they are not ambulance chasers: They only step in when there is an injustice, and even then only when their intervention can make a difference.
Judges — or, rather, judges not on the Florida Supreme Court — adore them. City officials should ask a few of them.
Jacksonville spends less on civil legal aid per person than rural Clay and conservative St. Johns counties, according to JALA’s figures. Peer cities like Miami and Tampa contribute north of $1 million to their regional legal aid organizations.
Jacksonville directly budgets no money for JALA.
Instead, JALA each year has to compete with every other city nonprofit for a slice of a meager $3-4 million pool of public-service grants doled out by the city.
In better years, JALA can get about $400,000 in grant money; in bad years, it can get none. This forced JALA to eliminate some of the legal services it can offer, like family law and immigration. It’s inadequate, and it’s unfair — to JALA and to the other nonprofits, particularly ones not as adept at navigating grant paperwork, that must compete with it.
JALA’s work can have benefits in indirect ways. Its work on fair housing helps improve not only the quality of life for residents in public housing, but even their health outcomes (forcing landlords to clean up mold problems). Their efforts preventing wrongful foreclosures can, according to some studies, have a positive impact on crime in neighborhoods. Their work on custody issues, paternity and protecting abuse victims strengthens families and saves lives.
Conversely, think of harm that goes unaddressed when JALA lawyers are unable to perform this work because of a lack of funding. Often, imagination isn’t required: It’s the homeless veteran out on the street corner.
Owning the failure
Jacksonville, Florida and the rest of the nation could be on the precipice of a potential pandemic-driven eviction crisis when a federal moratorium expires at the end of this month. “It’s a slow moving hurricane,” Jim Kowalski, JALA’s president and CEO, told me earlier this year.
JALA is one of the few tools available to combat homelessness proactively: By keeping people in their homes, when it’s cheaper to help them than it is after they lose them. Jacksonville City Hall experienced this earlier in the year, when it struggled for weeks with a homeless encampment that sprang up in downtown and found itself spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for temporary housing.
There is good news: There is no better, more convenient time to rectify this historical failure to support legal aid than the upcoming budget.
Boosted by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal recovery money and an additional 6-cent gas tax increase, Jacksonville has found itself, for the first time in years, able to make sound decisions about what to fund and how to fund it. JALA must be on that list. Finding $700,000 to $1 million is easy enough in tough budget times as long as city officials are determined enough. Doing it now is a little matter of paperwork.
This failure is long-running and so it does not belong to Curry or the current City Council. They did not create this problem. But, in this rare time of plenty, they do own the burden of fixing it, or they must own the consequences.
Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.