Washington, DC, October 17, 2007 — By a vote of 75-19, the full U.S. Senate last night approved the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) funding bill, providing a $41.4 million or 12 percent budget increase for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s single largest source of funding for civil legal aid for the poor. LSC would receive a total of $390 million, approaching the $400 million received in FY 1995, the high-water mark in the Corporation’s 33-year history.
“In 1996 came a horrendous and Draconian cut,” said CJS Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). “If we had kept funding at the 1980 levels, just with inflation, Legal Services would be funded at $757 million [today].”
Representing low-income Americans facing foreclosure and battered women are among the top priorities of LSC-funded programs. “We have all read in recent months about the vast increase in the number of people losing their homes because of foreclosures and the scandal in the subprime lending market,” said Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). “Many of these people are low income, and they are going to need help from Legal Services because they will not be able to afford an attorney.”
An amendment offered by Senator John Thune (R-SD), defeated by a bipartisan vote of 61-32, the first recorded Senate vote on LSC funding since 1995, would have reduced LSC’s Senate appropriation by $20 million and increased funding for prosecution of violent crimes on Indian reservations by the same amount. Opponents of the amendment observed that fighting crime on Indian reservations is a noble goal, but cutting LSC’s budget would be counterproductive.
“Recent studies have shown that the only public service that reduces domestic abuse in the long term is women’s access to legal aid, the very assistance this amendment would drastically curtail,” Harkin said.
“Thank God for Legal Services lawyers,” Mikulski said. Citing her own experience as a Baltimore social worker, she observed, “One of the best ways to really help fight crime is in those early interventions we can do with families.” In addition to helping women and children escape abusive situations, she noted, Legal Services lawyers aid “victims of predatory lending or other schemes and other scams” and “[victims of] unscrupulous landlords of lead-saturated houses.”
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an 8 percent or $28 million increase in LSC’s budget for next year.
The pending increase in LSC’s budget is, in part, recognition of the groundbreaking report, Documenting the Justice Gap: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, which LSC released in September 2005. The Justice Gap Report documents that nationwide, for every eligible person helped by LSC-funded programs, another is turned away. Fifty percent of those actually seeking help are turned away for one primary reason: lack of resources.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said, “I would like to thank Senator Mikulski, Senator Harkin, and all the other Senators and Representatives who have worked so hard to make this increase possible. It will enable LSC-funded programs to provide vitally needed civil legal assistance to thousands more eligible low-income individuals all across America.”
LSC gives grants to independent, local programs — in 2007, 138 programs with more than 900 offices nationwide. Grants are awarded through a competitive process. The size of each grant is based on the number of people living in poverty in a given state or geographic service area.
Created by Congress in 1974, LSC is governed by a bipartisan, 11-member Board of Directors appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate.