Policy Matters – July 2023

Eòghann Renfroe July 31, 2023

Welcome to the July edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. This edition includes action towards language justice in Long Island, the latest from our Police Reform Project, information on the need for comprehensive right to counsel for divorce, and staff recognition for service to LGBTQ communities of color. You can also read an archived version here.


Action Towards Language Justice

In the decade since the passage of executive orders mandating language access in Nassau County, the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC), of which Empire Justice is a member, has been pushing for full implementation. Now, after years of noncompliance, LatinoJustice PRLDEF is suing Nassau County and Nassau County Police Department for not providing adequate language assistance to community members in need.

LILAC and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) released a report this past September, Unprotected and Unheard: Nassau County Police Department Fails Immigrant Communities, which found that nearly 47% of Spanish speakers who called the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) in 2022 to test its language accessibility were unable to get assistance. Our Senior Paralegal & Community Advocate Cheryl Keshner, the coordinator for LILAC, spoke with Newsday at the time of the report’s release, saying, “The Nassau Police Department has to do better. They’re not meeting their legal obligation to serve the entire community. This is a discriminatory practice that they’re engaging in.”

Advocates held a press conference announcing the lawsuit on July 19. Cheryl was one of the speakers, and described incidents in which Nassau County residents who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault who do not speak English well are re-traumatized by police, denied interpreters, or even threatened with arrest themselves.

“This disregard for the wellbeing of our immigrant community reveals a culture within the department, and within the county, which devalues the lives of immigrants, of people of color, and of people who are low income. This culture desperately needs to be changed,” Cheryl said. “Ten years is too long to wait. The time for language justice is now.”


Racial Disparities in Low-Level Traffic Stops

On July 18 our Police Reform Project attorneys Jill Paperno and Katie Blum, along with Dr. Rashid Muhammad of JustCause, participated in a program held by the Monroe County Bar Association called, “Racial Disparities in Low Level Traffic Stops: What Law And Research Tell Us And What We Can Do.”

Low-level non-safety traffic stops, such as stopping a cyclist for lacking a bell on their bicycle or stopping a motorist for having something hanging from their car’s rear view mirror, are often enforced in racially disparate ways. You can read more about this issue in our recent preliminary report, Stop the Stops: The Disparate Use and Impact of Police Pretext Stops on Individuals and Communities of Color, or you can sign up for our Police Reform Project mailing list.


Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) Pushing for Positive Administrative Changes

Our Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) has been hard at work at the administrative grindstone, working with our fellow DAP statewide coordinator at the Urban Justice Center to draft and submit multiple comments on proposed rules and requests for information:

  • Omitting Food From In-Kind Support and Maintenance Calculations: This comment was submitted to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in response to proposed regulations for omitting food from in-kind support and maintenance (ISM) calculations for determining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit amounts. While we support this proposal as promoting equity and simplification for both the agency and claimants we believe more can and should be done. Congress should act to eliminate ISM entirely. Until then, SSA should find ways to further limit its application.
  • Setting the Manner of Appearance of Parties and Witnesses at Hearings: We support the ability of claimants to continue to utilize all modalities of hearings, including in-person, video, and audio, but urged SSA to retain in-person hearings as a meaningful choice. This means increasing the clarity of notices that explain how a claimant may choose between in-person, video, or audio hearings, as well as making the option of an in-person hearing the default with the opportunity to “opt in” to video rather than the reverse, as many claimants lack proper equipment, cell service, internet connection, private space, or even tech skills to properly engage in video hearings.
  • Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 Learning Agenda: We urged the SSA to study the effects of the reinstatement in 2019 of the reconsideration step into the process of appealing a denial of SSI/SSD benefits in states like New York. Reconsideration is an extra step in the evaluation process for Social Security benefits and has proven to be inefficient and unduly burdensome with minimal benefit. We also urged SSA to add the study of inequities in how disability claims are adjudicated to its Learning Agenda.
  • Identifying and Reducing Burdens in Administrative Processes: These comments were submitted to the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), and focused on SSA specifically. These comments also addressed the problems with ISM and reconsideration. We also suggested the expansion and formalization of the “good cause” policy enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will help address the issues caused if a claimant misses a deadline or other obligation. We also urged SSA to increase its transparency and accessibility to the public, and highlighted ways in which the agency’s overreliance on online services was sometimes harming underserved communities.


Comprehensive Right to Counsel for Divorce

Our Director of Training and Technical Assistance Amy Schwartz-Wallace was invited to participate in a Joint Policy Listening Session with the Office of Victim Services (OVS) and the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (OPDV) on July 25. As part of this session Amy presented on the need for a comprehensive right to counsel in divorce proceedings.

According to the NYS Department of Health’s Office of Vital Statistics, in 2019 nearly 36,000 divorces were granted to New York families. Unlike many other states, New York recognizes the right to counsel in many civil cases, especially in matters involving children, families, and safety – however, despite some protections in this area for custody and orders of protection, New York does not yet provide a comprehensive right to counsel for families in matrimonial actions, such as divorce. Despite access to civil legal services, pro bono, pro se clinics, and interim fees the need throughout the state still overwhelms the actual available services. Empire Justice supports the right to counsel generally and supports the push for right to counsel in eviction as well.


Making Change in LGBTQ Communities of Color

On July 22 our LGBTQ Rights Attorney, Lettie Dickerson, was honored by In Our Own Voices at their Jazz in July event. Lettie received the Jasán M Ward Community Advocacy Award in recognition of his work making change in LGBTQ+ Communities of Color. Congratulations Lettie!


NYS Nursing Home Survey

We need your input! In partnership with Center for Elder Law & Justice and through funding made available by the New York Health Foundation, we are pleased to announce the expansion of our nursing home resident rights resource guide.

We want to hear from community members who have had personal experiences with nursing homes, whether as a resident, family member, friend or employee. In connecting with our community, we will identify issues for nursing home residents, create educational materials, and advocate for change.

To take the survey, visit Nursing Home Experience Survey.


Thank You For Reading

If you’d like to keep up with our policy work, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or visit the Policy Central page on our website.

If you need civil legal help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.


The Empire Justice Policy Team