Community Justice Workers: Expanding legal help for Alaskans

Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) is the only statewide provider of free civil legal aid in Alaska. We provide free services to individuals with income at 125% of the poverty level or below in urban communities or 200% of the poverty level or below for those in rural communities. There are some exceptions for those who have a higher income. We also provide services to seniors age 60 and older without income restrictions, though priority is given to the seniors with the greatest social or economic need.

There are 12 ALSC offices across the state providing a wide range of services, including brief advice, court representation, community legal clinics, advocacy and online self-help. We also run a statewide pro bono program (private attorneys and volunteers who take cases through ALSC at no charge) and medical legal partnerships (attorneys housed in hospitals to provide services). Unfortunately, there is only about one ALSC staff attorney available for every 10,000 Alaskans who qualify for our services. This means ALSC must turn away one person for almost every person we help.

In 2018, we began searching for a solution to this problem. We asked, what institution is able to meet the needs of Alaskans across our very large and geographically diverse state? The answer was the tribal healthcare system. There are Community Health Aide/Practitioners (CHAPs, often known as health aides) in every village in Alaska who have been skilled to provide certain healthcare services. What if we were also able to upskill community members in villages and towns across Alaska to provide legal services?

With this inspiration, the Community Justice Worker (CJW) model and the Community Justice Worker Resource Center (CJWRC) were born. Through partnerships with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Alaska Pacific University, Association of Village Council Presidents, and Kodiak Area Native Association, we have developed a program that is volunteer driven and already showing success and promise.

We recruit volunteers who are connected to and invested in their communities and provide free self-paced online training on a very specific legal issue, such as SNAP advocacy, will writing, domestic violence advocacy, Indian Child Welfare Act advocacy, and debt collection defense. Once a volunteer completes training, they can choose to accept a case from ALSC. An ALSC staff attorney mentors and works with the volunteer throughout the case. The more volunteers take cases, the more comfortable they are and the less mentoring they need, though support is always available. The most popular courses are SNAP advocacy and wills. There are volunteers right now, maybe in your community, who are working with clients to help them achieve their legal goals in these areas.

CJWs have already proven to be effective and successful in helping their communities. When Alaska’s SNAP crisis exploded, there were approximately 60 trained and available CJWs who volunteered to take cases and help individuals and families file for fair hearing requests due to SNAP denials and delays, which usually resulted in their benefits being approved within 10 days of the request. During the height of the crisis, which lasted well over a year, CJWs were able to recover $1.43 million in food security benefits and closed almost 500 cases. They were 100% successful in resolving the delay issues.

In addition to filing hearing requests, volunteers negotiated with state agents and in some cases represented clients in administrative hearings. They also provided outreach and legal information in villages, educating community members on their legal rights in food benefit cases, and flagged issues that ALSC was able to address with the state through litigation and negotiation.

Over 15% of all SNAP cases closed by ALSC during the crisis were closed by a CJW volunteer – we would not have been able to help as many families as we did without CJWs.

As more volunteers continue to sign up to become CJWs, we are excited to see what comes next for Community Justice Workers in Alaska. Here are some things that are happening now:

- New courses will be added this year and next year to expand the kinds of cases CJWs are able to take;

- A certification process is being developed for CJWs to represent clients in court under Alaska Bar Rule 43.5 (Waiver to Engage in the Limited Practice of Law for Non-Lawyers Trained and Supervised by ALSC);

- New funding has been provided to support the work of the Community Justice Worker Resource Center. Thank you to Senator Murkowski for your work in securing an FY 2024 appropriation to expand Community Justice Work in Alaska; and

- We are always looking for ways to partner with community and tribal organizations across the state.

Community Justice Workers are helping to expand legal assistance to more Alaskans. Here are ways you can get involved:

Do you have legal needs that you haven’t been able to address? Apply for ALSC services today. You can do that by calling our statewide intake line 1-888-478-2572, applying online at alsc-law.org/intake, or visiting your local ALSC office.

Do you want to make a difference in your community by making legal help more available in Alaska? Become a CJW volunteer. You can sign up online at alsc-law.org/community-justice-worker-program. Scroll a third of the way down the page and complete the form.

Do you want to stay in the know with what’s happening at Alaska Legal Services Corporation and the Community Justice Worker Resource Center? Sign up for our newsletter at alsc-law.org. Scroll to the bottom of the page and under connect click “Join ALSC’s Email List.”

By working together with our communities, we believe we can make a difference by expanding legal help to more—and eventually all—Alaskans.

 
 
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