It was a big year for justice at the Washington State Legislature — the 2021 session resulted in major new investments and policy reforms for the civil justice system.
The Legislature’s final biennial budget included a record increase for civil legal aid. It fully funded the ongoing civil legal aid COVID-19 response services that began with temporary emergency funds in 2020. This investment means that expanded legal aid work around eviction defense, unemployment benefits, protection against domestic violence, and other issues exacerbated by the pandemic will continue over the next two years and ensure that our state’s COVID recovery is fair and equitable. LFW will continue to partner with the state to administer some of the new funding.
And LFW is proud to support organizations that successfully advanced historic legislation to address systemic racism and injustice, including:
Right to counsel for tenants and youth
The Legislature passed two bills establishing the right to an attorney in certain civil cases, a landmark step toward access to justice for all.
SB 5160 makes Washington the first state in the nation to guarantee counsel for low-income people in eviction hearings, provided by legal aid attorneys at the Northwest Justice Project and volunteer lawyer programs around the state. While the implementation process is still developing, the law will take effect this year — substantially increasing access to legal aid as thousands of tenants face an anticipated wave of evictions once the state’s moratorium ends.
Having a lawyer can make all the difference: studies show that a tenant with legal representation is significantly more likely to stay housed than a self-represented tenant. A 2018 study showed that only 8% of eviction defendants in Washington had access to representation, and that Black renters face dramatically higher rates of eviction.
HB 1219 establishes the right to counsel for children and youth aged 8 and up in dependency court proceedings, where parents and guardians already have a guaranteed right to counsel. The bill, which was led by youth advocates at The Mockingbird Society, aims to reduce the disproportionate overrepresentation of youth of color in the child welfare system, and will be phased in over the next six years. The first cohort of counties will go live on July 1, 2022.
“This is a monumental victory in Washington State and something that young people who have been impacted by foster care advocated for over the past 10-plus years,” said Erin Shea McCann, deputy director at Legal Counsel for Youth and Children (LCYC). “There is lots of implementation work ahead, and LCYC is eager to engage in the work to ensure that dependent children and youth have access to well-trained and well-supported attorneys.”
Legal aid for undocumented people
HB 1072 removes a restriction on using state funds to help people who are undocumented with their non-immigration-related civil legal issues. Deleting the discriminatory restriction from the state statute means that the state funds administered by LFW can go toward any client in need of services, and that many legal aid programs will no longer have to ask clients about their immigration status — eliminating a barrier to accessing justice for immigrant communities hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis.
“By passing HB 1072, Washington State takes one step forward in embodying its commitment against discrimination on the basis of citizenship or immigration status, and it sends a strong message that every resident in this state has value,” said Alfredo González Benítez, staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “This new chapter will better allow Washington State to uphold the rights of all persons in our state.”
Ban on private detention
HB 1090 prohibits private, for-profit prisons from operating in Washington. The one such facility in the state — the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, operated by a for-profit prison company — will now be forced to close by the end of its contract in 2025. The end of ICE detention and the reduction in mass incarceration in our state has been a longtime goal of immigrant rights advocates.
“Through our clients at the Northwest Detention Center we have witnessed the harm of private companies detaining community members. We are proud that the Legislature and the Governor have put Washington on the path to ending companies profiting off of detention, an important step towards a nationwide effort,” said Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney for the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
LFW partners worked on many other bills impacting civil and criminal justice, such as HB 1078 to restore voting eligibility for previously incarcerated people and SB 5226 to end the suspension of driver’s licenses due to unpaid traffic fines. Congratulations to all the advocates, supporters, and organizations that worked so hard to make 2021 a banner year for justice in Washington!