A Right to Legal Aid

The sixth amendment of the Constitution gives each of us the right to legal counsel. But with Congress willing to undermine this pillar of our judicial system, the law and this right are in jeopardy.

Under the sequestration that automated harsh cuts, the budget for legal aid has taken a big blow and it is African American and Latinos who have the most to lose.

Statistics show that the poor, blue collar workers and the middle class — meaning those who don’t have deep pockets to acquire private attorneys–are more likely to tap legal defense funded by the government.

Those who cannot afford to be affected are the ones being affected. Among those who have no other recourse but to tap federally-funded legal aid are some of the most vulnerable Americans — victims of domestic violence and natural disasters, and people who are physically challenged. More than 63 million Americans whose household incomes fall at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, including 22 million children, qualify for legal assistance.

Yet Congress’s 8.2% cut to the legal aid budget are above recent ones that have already been implemented. The current budget of $348 million is $72 million under the $420 million assigned in 2010.

Thousands of employees who directly or indirectly work in legal assistance are being let go and thousands more are on leave without pay. On top of all of this, delays in courtrooms due to the budget cuts put at risk the kind of justice that is assumed to be equal for all. This is especially troublesome considering recent reports on the backlog in Bronx courts

The same Congress that plays with agencies that help millions of citizens has rescued other services, such as airport security, the FBI, border patrol and even the National Weather Service. But, where is the outcry for quality public defense?

As Congress fails to act, more services are eliminated while others are paralyzed, making the blow to the legal system more devastating. Congress must stop and re-invest funds to preserve access to justice for those who need it the most.

We cannot live in a nation where capital punishment exists and only those with capital can avoid punishment.