Monday, August 1, 2011
**North Jersey's The Record**
The Assembly Judiciary Committee last week asked Governor Christie to restore funding to the state's legal aid agency. During the governor's budget-veto rampage, Legal Services of New Jersey was the victim of a surprise $5 million slashing, an amount that will cripple the organization even further. It already lost $10 million in state aid last year.
Legal Services President Melville Miller Jr. told legislators the new bottom line most likely will mean 100 fewer lawyers, the closure of at least three offices and 10,000 fewer people getting legal help by the end of the year. As a result of the last cuts, Miller estimates that two out of three people seeking help are turned away. This new round may mean three out of four people with a real need for attorneys' services are out of luck. It's a deplorable state of affairs.
Legal aid provides free legal help to people who cannot otherwise afford it. That includes legal representation in civil court, an invaluable service that is too often out of reach for the nation's poor. Legal aid lawyers work on eviction cases, tenant disputes, domestic violence cases, child custody cases, consumer fraud issues and Social Security disability claims, among others.
To be poor in America means to lead a rickety life, in which one unforeseen problem or financial obstacle can cause the whole loose structure to come tumbling down. You unfairly lose a job so you're kicked out of your apartment for not paying rent. You have a health problem and no health insurance, so you pay the bills and forgo food, only to get sicker. Your husband is physically abusive, you leave, he keeps the car and you are fired from your job.
Access to the judicial system is the only way to gain fair treatment. It is also an integral part of being an American. We are a nation of just laws, in which legal redress is a right. By hobbling Legal Services, the state takes away that right for people without a lot of money.
The Judiciary Committee is asking Christie to restore $10 million to Legal Services. It may not be enough, but it's a good start. Legal Services expected this year's aid to remain level to last year's, at $19.9 million, and even that was a hardship. Then came the additional $5 million gash.
The funding cut was just one in a series dealt to the poor and disadvantaged in this year's state budget. Christie refuses to restore the earned income tax credit to its previous level. Nor will he put back money taken from a child advocacy agency that offers legal representation and treatment for children who have been physically or sexually abused. Forget the $7.5 million for family planning centers that allow the poor to receive basic health care. Or money for an AIDS drug distribution program. Or even funding for a successful after-school program.
When one social-services thread after another is pulled out, the safety net unravels. While top-tier earners are saved from any tax increase, those at the bottom are left with nowhere to turn. The message they get from the state is, "We don't care."
Restore the funding.