A fair justice system is out of reach for most poor and working people. If Trump’s proposed budget cuts become a reality, the administration’s new budget will ravage most of the limited access points for all but the most affluent Americans. And regardless of what the final budget looks like, the president’s “budget blueprint” embodies the administration’s concerted effort to slash disadvantaged people’s access to justice. It seeks, among other cuts, the complete elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation and a drastic cut of the funding for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. A quick look at the budget priorities makes clear that the cuts are not about the money – the budget for each of these programs is miniscule, relative to the national budget. But these agencies provide crucial advocacy for people who need help. Indeed, these agencies often provide the only feasible way for getting help.
The Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) funds legal aid organizations around the country that provide free services to poor, elderly, and disabled people who are grappling with issues like illegal evictions; domestic violence; disability, veterans, or safety-net benefits; illegal debt collectors; special needs services; custody issues; employment issues; etc. The annual budget for LSC is just $503 million, or $1.55 per American. Compare that to housing subsidies like the mortgage interest deduction, which primarily benefit wealthy homeowners and costs $296.29 per American. Axing LSC is obviously not about the cost, it is about killing what little access there is to the justice system for vulnerable people.
Similarly, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department costs only $156 million, or $0.48 per American. Its aim is to fight discrimination and protect citizens’ voting rights. Recently, for instance, the Civil Rights Division issued reports on: Chicago Police Department’s institutional racism and use of excessive force, Louisiana police officers’ unconstitutional practice of secretly holding people indefinitely, and illegal police practices targeting African Americans in Baltimore. The Division is tasked with enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, family status, and national origin. And the Division is responsible for protecting our voting rights. The new administration is intent on gutting all those protections.
It is, of course, no coincidence that these cuts in access to the justice system are being proposed at the same time that the underlying rights are being drastically diminished. The rights and the enforcement cuts happen in tandem in a brazen effort to disempower people. For example, the proposed budget would eliminate all of the grant programs managed by the Office on Violence Against Women, while simultaneously killing the legal aid budget for helping women obtain relief from domestic violence. The DOJ Civil Rights division will be slashed, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicates that the federal government should not investigate local police forces or follow up on the reports of abusive police departments anyway. Voting restrictions are burdening poor people, but the government moves to combat fictional “voter fraud” instead of working to ensure true representative democracy through greater election access.
All of these moves are intended to strip poor and working people’s access to the justice system and to democracy itself. As the new administration chisels away at our civil rights, it is alarming to see the simultaneous effort to stop us from fighting back.