Report from Governmental Affairs
ABA urges increased funding for legal programs serving the military and veterans
By Rhonda McMillion
Mar 1, 2013, 01:10 am CST
As the 113th Congress settles into its first session, the ABA has resumed its advocacy efforts supporting legislation that would bolster legal assistance programs for active service members and veterans.
One of the ABA’s priorities in this area is passage of the Justice for Troops Act, which would authorize the Defense Department to use up to $500,000 a year to support private-sector programs designed to provide pro bono legal representation on civil matters to low-income military families.
The legislation, introduced in the Senate during the 112th Congress by Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seeks to ensure that U.S. service members have access to the full range of representation they require.
While military legal assistance offices provide extensive help to service members with significant legal aid, there are cases that go beyond what these offices can provide, such as prolonged and complex custody disputes.
The legislation would build on private sector programs organized under the ABA Military Pro Bono Project in cooperation with military legal assistance efforts to better meet the range of civil legal needs that low-income military families may face. These programs maintain lists of attorneys who volunteer to provide their services at no cost, either in consultation with military programs or by accepting referrals from them. The ABA project, which has been in operation since 2008, is coordinated by the Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel.
The Senate included the Justice for Troops Act in its version of 2012 defense authorization legislation, but the provisions were dropped in conference with the House, and the 2013 defense authorization bill already has been passed by Congress. But the Senate Committee on Armed Services praises the Military Pro Bono Project in its report accompanying the authorization bill. The ABA project, according to the report, “has provided military legal assistance attorneys with a centralized referral point for pro bono counsel and overseen an efficient component to existing military legal assistance programs.”
GET OFF THE STREET
The ABA also will continue to press for additional federal resources to address the ongoing crisis of homelessness among veterans, particularly women and those with families.
The 2012 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs, showed a 17.2 percent decline in homelessness among veterans since 2007. But the report also revealed a 1.4 percent increase in homelessness among families of veterans.
“Those who heroically served America in the military should not find themselves struggling to find a bed to sleep in or a meal to eat,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement issued when the report was re-leased in December. Murray sponsored legislation aimed at ending homelessness among veterans, and addressing the lack of safe and secure facilities for homeless veterans.
The ABA’s Homeless Veterans Justice Initiative, coordinated by the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, focuses on removing legal barriers—both civil and criminal—to benefits, employment, housing, treatment and services. The ABA also is involved in various partnerships addressing the issue, including the Obama administration’s Opening Doors initiative.
On a related front, the ABA will continue during the 113th Congress to push for legislation supporting creation of veterans treatment courts, which offer structured intervention, treatment and integrated services to avoid unnecessary incarceration of veterans who suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems. The Services, Education and Rehabilitation for Veterans Act would authorize the U.S. attorney general to award grants to help create and enhance veterans treatment courts, or expand the jurisdiction of drug courts to help veterans. Nearly 100 veterans treatment courts have opened since the first one went into operation five years ago in Buffalo, N.Y.