Justice in the heartland: Expanding legal representation for rural residents

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For many rural counties, access to legal representation is limited or even non-existent. In fact, according to a 2020 report by the American Bar Association, of the United States’ 3,100 counties and county equivalents, 54 have no lawyers at all, and an additional 182 have only two or fewer. Indiana stands only tenth from the bottom on the list of lawyers per capita, with just 2.3 lawyers for every 1,000 residents.

“Rural counties have what we call legal deserts,” says Inge Van der Cruysse, a lecturer at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law who previously supervised externships. “Lawyers who are practicing in rural counties are retiring, are passing away, and they’re not being replaced by the younger generation.” 

The law school hopes the Rural Justice Initiative will alleviate some of rural Indiana’s waning lawyer population. The program, supported by the Center for Rural Engagement, is offered by the Maurer School of Law in collaboration with the Indiana Supreme Court. Indiana Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush, a 1983 graduate of the Maurer School of Law, and Judge Edward W. Najam Jr. of the Indiana Court of Appeals developed the idea for the program. The program was launched last year by the law school’s Dean of Students Aviva Orenstein, who played a leading role in the development and implementation of the initiative, along with the faculty's Judicial Clerkship Committee. Additional support was provided by the law school’s Board of Visitors Clerkship Committee, which Judge Najam co-chairs. This year, Justice Christopher Goff of the Indiana Supreme Court, a 1996 graduate of the law school, worked with Professor Van der Cruysse and the faculty Judicial Clerkship Committee to build on the program’s successes from last year.

To have a high caseload and not have someone to do research for you takes a lot of time from the judges.

Aviva Orenstein, IU Maurer School of Law

The initiative places first-year law students in legal clerk positions with judges in one of 19 rural counties throughout Indiana, a sorely needed relief for many of them. “In other states, state trial judges, like the judges in rural counties, have a full-time clerk. But, Indiana doesn’t have a budget for that,” Orenstein says. Yet, it’s those judges that see the highest volume of cases. “To have a high caseload and not have someone to do research for you takes a lot of time from the judges.” The Indiana Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Rush, has been a leader in thinking through creative solutions to support judges throughout the state, and the law school is pleased to play a supporting role.

The goal of the initiative is two-fold. First, students can assist rural judges in communities overloaded with court cases, and in doing so gain valuable courtroom experience. Second, by being exposed to the work of a rural court system the hope is the program will draw some students into doing legal work in rural counties after graduating.

The Rural Justice Initiative is one of a handful of rural legal programs and services bolstered in some way by the Center for Rural Engagement. For the initiative, it was in the form of support to help expand the number of student externs that could participate. For others, like the Bloomington Expungement Help Desk and the immigration law help provided in Huntingburg, Indiana, it was creating the connections and resources to help these programs get off the ground and keep going.

In Indiana, most misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges can be expunged from a record given that a certain amount of time has passed and there are no other pending charges. However, the process of expungement can be complex, and there may be barriers.

The Bloomington Expungement Help Desk, a function of Indiana Legal Services, operates out of the New Leaf - New Life nonprofit’s office on Walnut Street in Bloomington. Available to anybody below an income limit, the Expungement Help Desk offers free and often necessary legal help in having a criminal record expunged.

Jessica Beheydt shares information about the Bloomington Expungement Help Desk at the IU Rural Conference in 2019.

“Indiana Legal Services is one of the only organizations that provides free expungement help in south-central Indiana,” says Jessica Beheydt, the supervising attorney and one of the people who crafted the idea originally as a class project during law school. “There’s a lot of will and desire to help people, but there’s no structure in place.”

But that’s not to say there isn’t a demand for it. “If anything, it would surprise people to know how many people in their lives actually have a criminal record and how much of an effect that has on their lives,” she says. For many people, a criminal record can get in the way of being hired, finding housing, or in one case, volunteering at their child’s school—even if the charges have been dismissed. This is true especially of people seeking employment as nurses, she says, and it’s impacting some people who are looking to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its launch in January 2020, the desk has helped with 91 expungements, in addition to 25 pending expungements, across 33 of Indiana’s 92 counties, and written 50 advice letters—legal advice for people who may not currently be eligible for expungement but could take steps to be. Often, this means paying court costs or restitution that is owed.

However, Beheydt says, those costs can be what’s kept them from having their records expunged. “They have to be income-eligible for our services, which means that, by that very fact, these are people who don’t have disposable income,” she says. “They do not have an extra twenty dollars a month to pay toward these extra court costs.” But, because of their criminal record, they can’t find the employment that may allow them to pay off those fees and have their records expunged. To break this cycle, the Expungement Help Desk has started asking courts to waive the costs, and, to date, $6,000 has been waived.

Although they’re based in Bloomington, Beheydt says that a lot of the people they help are from surrounding rural counties, and this brings a host of challenges. “I end up helping people who don’t have internet access. We can barely have a complete phone conversation because neither one of us has cell phone service,” she says. “We end up doing most of our correspondence by mail.”

 

I’m so proud that our students are playing such an important role in serving Hoosiers through the Bloomington Expungement Help Desk.

Victor Quintanilla, IU Maurer School of Law

Victor Quintanilla, professor and Val Nolan Faculty Fellow at the Maurer School of Law, offered guidance to Beheydt and her classmates as they formed this project as students, and he continues to mentor law students who are developing service initiatives to increase access to justice.

“I’m so proud that our students are playing such an important role in serving Hoosiers through the Bloomington Expungement Help Desk, and that this project came to be through their visioning and efforts in the law school's access-to-justice service learning program with support from the Center for Rural Engagement,” said Quintanilla.

Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, a professor of law at the Maurer School of Law, has been working with attorney Christine Popp to provide much-needed help with immigration law in southern Indiana. Popp, with Fuentes-Rohwer’s help, has set up an office in Huntingburg, Indiana, where a need was identified, following a connection with Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner made by the Center for Rural Engagement.

“This initiative came to me through various hands,” says Fuentes-Rohwer. “Ultimately, my dean was asked about this opportunity, and he asked me if I was interested. I did not have to think about it for one moment.”

Dubois County—where Huntingburg is located—has a very low annual unemployment rate of 2.5 percent, according to STATS Indiana. Maximizing the workforce is critical to the growth of the local economy. Spinner and other local leaders developed the Dubois County Latino Collaboration Table to examine immigration, education, and communication needs. Through this effort, Spinner learned that increased legal services for residents, particularly Latinx immigrants, pursuing employment eligibility could help solve the workforce shortage. He turned to the IU Center for Rural Engagement to see what the state's university could bring to the table.

"The IU team that came down and met with us really got the ball rolling in finding ways to address this issue," said Spinner.

While Popp does the actual legal work, Fuentes-Rohwer helps organize attorneys, law students, and community members to help with interpreting and legal papers. “I am amazed at the diversity you find across the state of Indiana.” he says. “It blows me away. I am also amazed at how many people—especially community leaders—are so willing to help others.”

Though this partnership addresses a specific need for Huntingburg's workforce, Spinner knows that it also helps to establish the community as an inclusive, thriving place to live.

"Just having someone here who can help residents navigate through those issues gives them a sense that this is a community that does care and that they can be safe in,” Spinner said.

This story was updated with additional information about the Rural Justice Initiative on November 1, 2020.

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.