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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Remarks at the Equal Justice Conference


Dallas, TX
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you to co-chairs Henry Su and Maria Thomas-Jones and to the ABA and NLADA for your work to host this meaningful event.

It is truly invigorating to be here at the Equal Justice Conference, where many panels and discussions will illustrate innovative partnerships and strategies. From linking technologists and lawyers — to understanding the connections between insurance coverage, race and legal assistance — leaders from all sectors and disciplines are re-envisioning what access to justice can look like through creativity and unlikely partnerships.

The shared ambitious goal that brings us all here — access to justice for all — requires these types of bold ideas. 

And it takes all of us. When systemic inequities persist across our courts, and across our systems of housing, healthcare, employment, child custody and more, these partnerships are critical. Breaking down silos by coming together can bring visibility to these issues and help us better understand their comprehensive impact — an impact that goes beyond one case or one court system. And this helps us to craft holistic solutions.

For those who hadn’t heard, the Office for Access to Justice is back. And we’re building programs and initiatives through this bold lens. Our mission is to break down barriers to the promises and protections of our legal systems. Our goal is to ensure justice belongs to everyone. And we believe it is possible.

But our office cannot succeed without a permanently imbedded function and voice in the federal government. We won’t succeed without broad collaboration. And we certainly will not succeed unless we forge deep partnerships with those doing the work on the front lines, like many in this room.

I’d love to share just a few initiatives we’ve launched so far.

We’re working to pursue language justice. We hired the Justice Department’s first ever Language Access Coordinator, who carries a department-wide mandate and sits in the Office for Access to Justice. We’ve re-launched and are chairing the Justice Department Language Access Working Group, and we’re working to pursue resources and policies that expand language justice.

We also staff and direct the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), a collaboration of 28 federal agencies to increase access to justice across federal government, co-chaired by Attorney General Merrick Garland and White House Counsel Stuart Delery. LAIR fosters partnerships with leaders on housing, education, labor, health, food security and more. In 2022, we focused on people-centered approaches to simplifying government forms and processes. You can find our 2022 report online, and you can also get a hard copy and meet our team at the ATJ Networking meet and greet later during lunch today.

Our office is also working to mitigate against economic barriers to accessing justice — like unjust fines or fees. Just last month, our office partnered with the Civil Rights Division and the Office for Justice Programs to issue a Dear Colleague Letter on the assessment of fines and fees across civil and criminal legal systems.

And our office is working to combat the wide-ranging barriers faced by those leaving incarceration. We led the drafting and publication of the Reentry Coordination Council’s Report and hosted a Reentry Simulation, in collaboration with six other federal agencies from Housing and Urban Development, to Labor and to the Department of Education. We presented recommendations to Congress on reducing barriers to successful reentry for individuals released from incarceration.

And today, as we continue to develop initiatives through cross-sector collaborative approaches, I’m pleased to announce that the Office for Access to Justice has posted a position for an attorney advisor to develop and lead an innovative civil legal services pilot program within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

We started by working with BOP and the National Institute of Corrections to administer a voluntary survey to incarcerated individuals in federal prisons. Over 50,000 people responded, the vast majority indicating need for civil legal help.

We know that touches with the justice system exacerbate collateral consequences, and civil legal needs faced by the most vulnerable communities.

People involved with the criminal justice system are disproportionately low-income and indebted, and incarceration can lead to worsening debt.

Incarceration can also contribute to loss of child custody and parental rights.

And federal benefits can be terminated or become more difficult to access for those with a criminal conviction.

When basic needs are cut off, and when core civil legal issues are not resolved, it contributes to recidivism and cycles people right back into the criminal justice system. Through this initiative and partnership, we hope to disrupt this cycle.

The pilot program will explore methods to offer services on a limited scale — on particular issues in certain women’s facilities — while evaluating the feasibility of expanding in the future. And we plan to develop metrics on the front end to understand the effectiveness of providing civil legal services to individuals impacted by the criminal legal system.

We hope that you consider applying and passing this posting along to colleagues.

And as we continue to develop initiatives and grow our work, we hope that you will partner and collaborate with us, and that you see us as your ally and supporter. Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated May 4, 2023