By Michele Hanisee
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently passed a motion to study the feasibility of creating a “Civil Defense Justice Unit” in the Public Defenders Office to represent “justice involved” individuals in various civil proceedings. (“Justice involved” is the newest politically correct term for “criminal defendant.”) This unit would assist criminal defendants with various civil proceedings, including obtaining public benefits, family court issues, immigration issues, employment law issues and other civil issues.
Notably, the Board of Supervisors did not see fit to assist with the civil needs of those who have become involuntarily involved in the criminal justice system–crime victims. There is no catch-all service for legal representation in civil proceedings by the District Attorney’s Office, such as that the Board of Supervisors now contemplates creating for criminal defendants.
While the District Attorney’s Office does provide non-legal assistance to crime victims, that assistance is narrowly limited to addressing the impact from the crime: crisis intervention; emergency assistance; counseling referrals; court escort and orientation; restitution assistance; returning of property; assistance with employers; and case status notification. Unfortunately, even when state law mandates victim services and support, the state bureaucracy, arbitrary rules and deadlines make it difficult for these victims to get the support and services they so desperately need. SB 375, now pending before the State Senate, attempts to provide some relief for the bureaucratic nightmare by extending from three to 10 years the deadline to apply for victim compensation.
In her motion, Supervisor Solis stated that the proposed “Civil Justice Unit” would “prevent manifestation of chronic consequences, often financial, which too often tear at the fabric of our communities. Preventing sustained collateral consequences provides a prophylactic measure against homelessness, recidivism, family dysfunction, and disparities in childhood opportunities.”
What Supervisor Solis wrote about criminal defendants is doubly true for crime victims and their families, who unlike the defendants did not choose to become “justice involved.” The fallout for victims because of trauma. injury and economic loss often leads to the consequences listed by Supervisor Solis. Victims of crime need legal assistance with public benefits, family court issues, immigration issues, employment law issues and other civil issues, but despite having the right to an attorney under Marsy’s Law, they typically cannot afford one.
Emergency funds, which are rarely provided in Los Angeles, are capped at $300. Victims fleeing an abusive environment are at times are in need of diapers for their babies, clothing, hotel vouchers, relocation, medical supplies, transportation, food, and additional support for necessities the first 24-72 hours after a crime. Victims of domestic violence and human trafficking are often in need of career training and personal empowerment classes to break the cycles of victimization. They need legal assistance to obtain housing when they have low credit scores or no credit history at all. Rape and assault victims may need self-defense and safety classes. Finally, a court restitution order is not worth the paper it is printed on without a mechanism to enforce that order.
We call on the Board of Supervisors to revise their motion to also include the creation and funding for a “Civil Justice Unit” for crime victims. This unit would be able to identify the civil justice needs of the substantial population of crime victims in the County of Los Angeles, many of who are indigent, and ensure that these crime victims are as valued by the Board of Supervisors as the criminal defendants who victimized them.