The Department of Justice has “effectively shuttered” an office created during the Obama administration to expand access to legal services to people who can’t afford them, according to The New York Times.
The Office for Access to Justice was established in 2010 with a self-described mission to “help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.” It was a small office that coordinated efforts across federal agencies and state and local governments to make our obscenely unequal and discriminatory criminal justice system less obscenely unequal and discriminatory against poor people and people of color. Naturally, the Trump administration strangled it.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions can’t formally close the office without first informing Congress, so he seems to have used a familiar tactic inside this administration: leaving an agency or department in place while depriving it of the resources or staff necessary to operate. (See: the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, the entire federal government other than the military and law enforcement.)
The office still exists on the third floor of the Justice Department building, according to the Times, but its acting director has left and “the staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months.”
“Sessions’ shutting down the Access to Justice Initiative sadly speaks for itself,” Vanita Gupta, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department, told the Times.
Current disparities in our system are already pretty staggering, and disproportionately likely to be felt by people of color, as outlined in a 2016 report from the Center for American Progress:
In the last year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics published detailed figures, more than 80 percent of felony defendants charged with violent crimes in the largest U.S. counties could not afford to hire attorneys; the same was true for 66 percent of such defendants in U.S. district courts.
Other estimates for the percentage of criminal cases involving indigent defendants nationwide put that figure as high as 90 percent. Current funding and staffing levels for publicly funded lawyers cannot keep up with this demand. One estimate suggests that 6,900 more public defenders would be needed to manage the current caseload in the United States.
Clearly, those are inequities this administration wants to preserve.