Policy Matters – September 2023

Eòghann Renfroe September 27, 2023

Welcome to the September edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. This edition includes testimony to the Chief Judge on civil legal needs and the justice gap, a discussion on the abysmally low shelter allowance, the family violence option for DV survivors, reforming the notarization process, allowing SSI recipients to save, our police reform project, tackling child poverty, the latest on Fair Hearing Help NY, a domestic violence legislative update, our President & CEO honored, and professional opportunities at Empire Justice Center. You can also read an archived version of the newsletter here.


Chief Judge’s Hearing on Civil Legal Services

Our President & CEO Kristin Brown testified at the Chief Judge’s 2023 Hearing on Civil Legal Services in NYS on September 18. This hearing was held to evaluate the continuing unmet civil legal services needs in New York and to assess the level of resources necessary to meet those needs.

Terri Tupper, a three-time client of Empire Justice Center, also testified before the hearing. In her testimony, Terri describes first becoming a class action client of Empire Justice in 2008, through which she was able to finally secure access to Medicaid, and how that led to Empire Justice representing her in other matters over the next decade, helping to secure medical aids, reasonable accommodation requests, housing, and stability that would not have been possible without access to legal services.

Kristin’s testimony noted the need for public interest attorneys with a high level of expertise and talent are needed to tackle this type of work. But starting attorney salaries in civil legal services are consistently the lowest paying public interest attorney jobs across the state. A widening salary gap is making it increasingly difficult to attract and retain legal talent. Testimony delivered by the President of the New York Legal Services Coalition, Tina Foster, echoed these concerns about pay equity for advocates serving historically disadvantaged communities.

The Chief Judge will report to the Legislature, as requested in its June 2010 Joint Resolution, on the information obtained at the hearing and on the ongoing work of the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice.


Highlighting Problems with the Low Shelter Allowance

Last month we released a new report, No Keys to Safe and Decent Housing in New York’s “Safety Net”, which delves into this issue with data from each county in New York State, and offers policy solutions to the housing instability, homelessness, and other issues caused by the huge gap between the shelter allowance and real rents.

Jessica Radbord and Haley Kulakowski, the authors of the report and attorneys in our Public Benefits unit, spoke with the Sanctuary for Independent Media on September 14, where they talked about the role of State rule-making, affordable housing, and the fact that whether for households without children or households with children, there are no units in any part of New York State that are at the price point of the shelter allowance.

“Here in Albany, for a family of three, the rent allowance – what we call the shelter allowance – is $309 a month,” Jessica told the Sanctuary. “You don’t need to do the same research that we did, looking at the actual zipcode-level data of how many units are at which price points, to know you’re not going to find an apartment that’s suitable for a three person household, or for anyone, for $300 dollars.”


Family Violence Option and the FRA

We met with the Office for Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) in July to discuss the consequences of the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) of 2023 on the operation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in New York. The FRA impacts work requirements for TANF recipients, in many cases expanding ineffective work requirements, which in turn make it more difficult for New Yorkers to access assistance.

In addition, the dynamics of domestic violence can make participation in work-related activities unsafe for survivors. For this reason, we followed up our meeting with a letter to OTDA, recommending the issuance of a reminder to local districts about their obligations under the Family Violence Option regarding waivers from work activities for victims of domestic violence, or other eligible victims of human trafficking, sexual assault, or sexual abuse.

Our 2019 report, Poverty and Violence: Does New York’s Family Violence Option Make a Difference? found that the Family Violence Option program does properly assist many domestic violence victims, but that others may not be as well served, with one reason being inadequate training of front-line Department of Social Services staff. Guidance and reminders from OTDA are one way to help address these issues.


Reforming the Notarization Process

The New York Legal Services Coalition, of which our President & CEO Kristin Brown is Co-Vice President, submitted a letter of support urging Governor Hochul to sign the Notarization Reform Bill (S.5162 Hoylman-Sigal/A.5772 Lavine).

This bill will allow litigants in civil cases to swear to a statement under penalty of perjury without having to notarize the document – a reform that will remove a significant barrier to justice that disproportionately affects low-income and unrepresented individuals, especially communities of color, with no notable benefit for the justice system.

When Governor Hochul signs the bill into law, New York would join the federal government and over 20 other states who have already eliminated the process of requiring documents to be notarized in civil matters. This would be an important step to making our court processes more equitable for all.


Allowing SSI Recipients to Save

We joined 370 other organizations across the nation in signing onto a letter of support for the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, a vital Federal bill that would, for the first time since 1989, raise the amount of assets that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients can save without jeopardizing their SSI benefits.

The current resource limit of $2,000 for individuals/$3,000 for couples makes it nearly impossible for recipients to have any measure of economic security, as it is impossible to save for any unexpected expenses or emergencies. The bill would significantly improve the lives of SSI recipients by raising the asset limit to $10,000 per individual/$20,000 per couple, and those limits would adjust with inflation.


Racial Disparities in Pretext Stops

Our Police Reform Project attorneys Jill Paperno and Katie Blum attended the Urban League of Rochester’s Interrupt Racism Conference, which was held on September 19-20. Empire Justice Center was proud to be a sponsor of this event. Jill and Katie also presented a workshop titled Structural Equity: Racial Disparities in Pretext Stops: The History and the Future, along with Dr. Rashid Muhammad.

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.


Tackling the Reduction of Child Poverty

The first meeting of New York State’s Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council’s Public Benefits Committee was held on September 14. Our President & CEO, Kristin Brown, is a member of the committee. The Council seeks to provide analyses of child poverty in New York, make policy recommendations for reducing child poverty by 50 percent over ten years, and measure and report on progress towards that goal. A recording of the first meeting of the Public Benefits Committee is available here.


Fair Hearing Help NY

Our Benefits and Crime Victims Legal Network Teams presented a webinar, FairhearinghelpNY.org: What It Is, and How It Can Help You and Your Clients, on September 12. When an individual’s benefits — such as SNAP benefits — are reduced, discontinued, or their application is denied, they can request a fair hearing. A fair hearing allows the individual to make their case and the agency will review the decision.

Over 95% of Appellants are not represented by counsel at fair hearings. FairHearingHelpNY.org was developed in collaboration with the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic at Columbia Law School, Empire Justice Center, The Legal Aid Society, and New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), as a resource to offer self-represented people information that will allow them to more fully participate in their fair hearing and exercise their due process rights.


Domestic Violence Legislative Update 2023

We hosted this legislative update, presented on September 19, 2023 by Joan Gerhardt, Director of Public Policy & Advocacy at the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NYSCADV). This presentation provides viewers with an update on the domestic violence-related bills that passed both houses or were signed into law this session.


Joint Public Hearing on Programs for Domestic Violence Survivors

Remla Parthasarathy, Project Leader of the Crime Victims Legal Network, will be testifying at a joint public hearing of the Senate Committee on Social Services and the Senate Committee on Women’s Issues on October 3. The hearing will examine whether the current continuum of care is meeting the needs of survivors of gender-based and domestic violence. Remla will discuss the importance of access to civil legal services for victims of crime.


Kristin Brown Honored by LASNNY

On September 7 our President & CEO, Kristin Brown was awarded the William E. Byron Equal Justice Award by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY) at their 100th Anniversary Awards Celebration in Albany!

This award honors LASNNY’s first and only non-lawyer Board President and recognizes an individual champion of civil legal services who has defended the civil legal rights of individuals in New York State and has worked tirelessly to ensure equal access to justice for low-income and vulnerable persons.

Kristin Brown has spent her career advocating for the civil legal rights of low-income New Yorkers. As Vice President of Policy and Government Relations at Empire Justice Center for 18 years, she worked with other civil legal aid and nonprofit agencies to advocate for systemic changes that removed barriers to access to justice for vulnerable populations. She led successful advocacy campaigns that raised hundreds of millions of dollars from the State to support the provision of civil legal services to low-income families in New York. Since 2019, in her role as President and CEO, she has worked at the state and national level to bring the most pressing needs of civil legal services agencies to the attention of decision makers and to strengthen Empire Justice Center’s systems change work, always with a focus on supporting and collaborating with community and legal organizations serving low income and marginalized communities.

We are so proud of you, Kristin! Please join us in congratulating her on this well-deserved recognition.


Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship

Applications are now being accepted for the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship, a prestigious, 2-year fellowship for a third-year law student in Rochester, NY! The goal of this fellowship is to increase systems change legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income families in high priority areas that are underserved.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship was established in memory of Hanna S. Cohn, who served as the Executive Director of JustCause for twenty years. The application deadline is October 27, 2023. The Fellow will be notified in January, 2024 and will begin work in September, 2024.


New York State Bar Association Civil Legal Services Career Fair

Empire Justice Center will be participating in the New York State Bar Association’s Civil Legal Services Career Fair on Wednesday, October 25 from 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm September 28! People interested in a career in civil legal services can attend this virtual fair to explore employment opportunities, connect with other attorneys, and learn about the civil legal services field.

Interested parties can register for this event and attend online free of charge. Come visit us at our virtual table to hear about job opportunities at Empire Justice Center.


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