On Monday, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold announced the launch of a pilot program to provide legal aid for incarcerated people accused of crimes, with the goal of helping them avoid eviction and homelessness.
Some people who wind up in jail and can't make bail miss rent payments and risk losing their homes, said Anita Khandenwal, director of the county public defense office. But the repercussions don't stop there.
"The consequences of a criminal eviction can really snowball," Khandenwal said. "There's the intended consequence of serving jail time, but there's also loss of housing, [employment] license, employment opportunity, or job you already have."
Herbold secured funding in the city's annual budget last year to hire three attorneys for the program. The legal aid pilot is modeled after existing "holistic defense" efforts in Washington, DC and New York, a philosophy of legal work that says lawyers should look beyond their cases and help tackle the roots of a client's crime, from poverty to mental health issues to addiction.
The program's civil lawyers, employees of the public defense office, will assist public defenders during a client's court case. One example of where the new attorneys may come in handy, Herbold said, is during the plea bargaining process. A civil lawyer may think of housing issues that could arise from a guilty plea that a criminal defense lawyer might not have considered.
Having civil attorneys assist public defenders to understand the impacts of jail time on individuals' housing and employment will help "[improve] the quality of representation" in the Seattle Municipal Court system and make it easier for formerly jailed people to reintegrate into their communities, Khandelwal said.
Over the two-year pilot, attorneys will collect data to better understand how involvement in the legal system impacts housing instability, homelessness, and other "civil consequences."