Nick Allen is a staff attorney with the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. Nick began at Columbia Legal Services as an Equal Justice Works fellow; his two-year project focused on the barriers to reentry created by legal financial obligations (LFOs)—the fees, fines, and restitution imposed by a court as part of a criminal judgment and sentence. As a staff attorney, he continues to work on LFOs as well as other issues, including juvenile life without parole in Washington State. Additionally, as a Youth Justice Leadership Institute fellow, he advocates for policies that change the way youth are transferred to and sentenced in the adult criminal justice system.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
Recently, Columbia Legal Services (CLS) co-authored a report with the ACLU of Washington on our investigation of legal financial obligations (LFOs) in Washington State. We believe this report, along with other efforts, has raised awareness around the state on the negative impact LFOs have on the reentry process, especially for people who are indigent and have no way of paying their LFOs.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
I think what causes clinic attorneys particular anxiety is that there is a serious need out there for LFO legal assistance, but we lack the time and resources to assist everyone who needs help understanding and addressing their LFOs. This becomes especially apparent when we meet with individuals who have multiple convictions and LFOs in several counties throughout the state. It can take a considerable amount of time and energy to address LFOs from one case in a single county; however, it can become exponentially more difficult for an individual to address LFOs if he or she has to navigate through multiple court systems to access relief. When other financial pressures and priorities are thrown into the mix—including child support obligations, the need to access employment, and the need to travel to and from the counties where LFOs were imposed—addressing LFOs becomes that much more difficult.
The more opportunities to learn about and discuss what other services and opportunities are available, the more efficient and impactful all of our work can be.
Given our limited resources, we believe the best approach for our clinic is to provide brief advice to clients and help them self-advocate. However, in some instances, self-advocacy may not be possible no matter how legitimate the LFO issue is or how dedicated the individual is to addressing his or her LFOs. In some cases, ongoing legal representation is the only way to help solve these folks’ problems. Unfortunately, there are not many places low-income persons with LFOs can go to receive ongoing assistance. This frustration also highlights why comprehensive LFO reforms are needed in Washington.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
In addition to more funding, I’d like to see more opportunities to learn about and connect with other civil legal aid firms that are doing similar work, especially around reentry, as well as community organizations who are working on these same issues. The more opportunities to learn about and discuss what other services and opportunities are available, the more efficient and impactful all of our work can be.
You created Columbia Legal Services' Legal Financial Obligation clinic as an Equal Justice Works fellow and then developed it into a broader Re-entry Clinic. What did you learn from that process?
In developing the LFO Clinic, I think CLS learned that the best place to start when creating a project is by engaging the affected community and client population. Creating a project that does not take the community’s input into consideration can lead to ineffective advocacy and poor solutions to the problem. Had we not reached out to the client community, the LFO project may have been more focused on legislative advocacy and might not have included direct services. However, our first step was to talk to people with LFOs and ask them what they thought of our ideas and what they thought was most needed to assist low-income folks with LFOs. They told us that they supported legislative efforts and thought they were necessary to bring about long-term systemic change on LFOs; however, they were concerned that in the meantime, there was nowhere people with LFOs could go to learn about their LFOs and receive legal advice to help them understand and address their specific LFO issues. We took that input into account and concluded that a community LFO legal clinic would be the most effective way to meet this need. So, in a way, the community created the LFO clinic.
Similarly, in expanding our clinic to include additional reentry issues, we surveyed individuals returning from jail and prison and asked which issues impact their reentry and were told housing and employment, specifically the impact that a criminal record has on access to housing and employment. As a result, we now also provide legal services to people facing employment and housing discrimination because of their criminal convictions.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Nick Allen can be contacted at Nick.Allen@columbialegal.org.