Democrats Prepare for a New President Favorable to Justice Department Reform

December 22, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are preparing legislation intended to capitalize on President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to reform the Justice Department.

The most recent examples are bills introduced last week in the House and Senate to reinstate the Justice Department’s Office of Access to Justice.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department established the Access to Justice program in 2010 to make civil claims and criminal defense more accessible to low income persons.

Its staff was supposed to ensure federal grants to help low-income persons were used appropriately at the state and local level. Often the effort meant helping low-income persons find representation through legal aid programs.

The Trump administration’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions phased it out in 2018. A Justice Department statement explained Sessions’ reasoning by calling programs like the Office of Access to Justice “unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.”

He also said it was established administratively without appropriate permission from Congress. “That’s wrong and it’s not good government,” Sessions said.

The bills introduced last week leave no doubt that Democrats in Congress want the Office of Access to Justice reestablished.

“The Trump Administration shuttered this office and curtailed this important work,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “The Biden-Harris Administration must make this office a top agency priority.”

The bill would require the attorney general to raise equal access to the legal system for indigent populations to a higher priority, particularly in grantmaking decisions. Other provisions would expand the office’s authority to decide how to use its federal funds, particularly to assist crime victims and women stuck in abusive relationships.

“It’s clear that our justice system is too often weighted against those without adequate resources to navigate it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a statement. “2020 has shown us just how deep systemic racism runs across all our institutions, especially in our justice system, and it’s critical we do more to address it.”

Murphy introduced the Senate version of the same bill pending in the House.

Its supporters include the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy foundation.

The need for the program was revealed during the coronavirus pandemic as laid-off workers struggled unsuccessfully with debt collectors and landlords seeking to evict them, according to the Center for American Progress.

Others have been convicted of crimes as their desperation spills over into thefts or violence.

Providing them with legal assistance is “a critical goal that has only become more clear as Americans across the country have struggled to survive the Trump administration’s devastating mismanagement of the pandemic,” said Maggie Jo Buchanan, the Center for American Progress’ legal process director.

Biden is expected to announce his choice of an attorney general within days while he responds to calls in Congress to reform a Trump administration Justice Department accused of being overwhelmed with political partisanship.

Its efforts in recent days have included challenging the November election results in lawsuits and considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter. He is suspected of using his relationship with his father to advance his business interests with China and lying about his income on tax returns.

The president-elect’s statements so far indicate he would prefer an attorney general who favors programs like the Office of Access to Justice.

During his campaign, he responded to nationwide protests over racial injustice by pledging sweeping reforms.

He said he would end mandatory minimum criminal sentences and use of private prison contractors. He proposes $20 billion in incentives for states to reduce prison populations. Part of the money would fund mental health and substance abuse programs.

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