Budget cuts could mean lack of legal services for low-income Alaskans
Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 could reshape the Alaska justice system. For many Alaskans who face a civil legal issue, the quality of justice they receive may depend on how much money they have.
"The state justice system shouldn't be just for those who can afford an attorney," Alaska Legal Services Corporation executive director Nikole Nelson said. "It should be for everyone."
ALSC is a nonprofit law firm and is Alaska’s only comprehensive provider of free civil legal services to low-income Alaskans. It can be a client's only way to face complex civil legal issues like escaping an abusive partner, stopping a wrongful foreclosure, and defending against a fraudulent debt collector.
In the governor's budget plan, state funding for ALSC would be eliminated.
"The state funds are about 15 percent of our budget," Nelson said. "If all state funding is eliminated we're going to have a hard time continuing to provide services."
In a news release Feb. 18, the organization estimated that eliminating state funding will force ALSC to "turn away an additional 1,363 applicants for legal help, impacting 2,809 Alaskans. Among those who will be turned away include: 409 seniors; 400 individuals with disabilities; 319 domestic violence victims; 115 veterans; and, 101 victims of crime."
A 2012 study funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and commissioned by ALSC showed that for every dollar invested in ALSC, there was a positive $5 return.
"A five to one return," Nelson said. "By cutting these dollars the state is not reducing the economic impact to the community. It's really decreasing the value and will end up costing the state more. The study showed that we saved the state money."
Nelson said that includes medical costs for victims of domestic violence and helping people resolve problems early. She said ALSC also helps people avoid homelessness, saving the state $650,000 each year in avoiding emergency shelter costs.
Last year, ALSC served 7,194 people in 197 communities across the state.
"For every person we serve, there's one we have to turn away," Nelson said. "So, even though we served over 7,000 people, there were 7,000 that needed help and didn't get it. If we lose state funding, that could impact another estimated 1,500 to 3,000 people."
At Wednesday's State of the Judiciary address in Juneau, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger spoke on the importance of laws being interpreted fairly.
"The disadvantaged may need protection from the powerful," Bolger said. "Those in a temporary minority may need protection from ideas the cease momentary popularity."
Bolger also expressed the importance of all Alaskans being represented by an attorney no matter their income.
"A growing number of people with legal problems are not represented by an attorney," Bolger said. "We have an obligation to help those people get appropriate and achieve fair outcomes."
A loss of state funding would also affect federal grants that only kick in with matching funds. ALSC relies on $750,000 in state funds to operate in their 12 locations statewide.
"There are no other options," Nelson said. "We are Alaska's only legal civil aid program. With reduced funding, there is no where else for people to turn."
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated a 2012 study on ALSC was conducted by the Alaska Health Trust Authority, an agency that doesn't exist. The study was produced for ALSC by The Resource for Great Programs, Inc. and funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
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