County prosecutors like us are well aware that the criminal justice system needs a moving party — the laws don’t enforce themselves. The same is true for the enforcement of civil legal rights. In the civil arena, people with means can hire a lawyer, but people without resources are most often also without legal redress, despite whatever laws on the books might say. For crime victims that can mean being unable to escape a life of domestic violence, recover from traumatic impacts of sexual assault or secure protection in response to hate crimes.
In our offices, we have dedicated staff who work with crime victims to help them get through the criminal justice process, and we do our best to support the victims’ emotional needs. What we are unable to provide is often the thing that will truly level the playing field for crime victims, including those in abusive relationships — an attorney to address the civil legal problems that arise from their victimization.
Unlike people who commit crimes, victims do not have a constitutional right to legal representation. This does not mean that as a matter of policy we should choose to not help people whose lives have been turned upside down by crime and who are often among the most vulnerable people in our community. It should be the opposite.
That is one reason why the Legislature funds civil legal aid to low-income Washingtonians. But even here, we fall woefully short. In 2015, an independent Civil Legal Needs Study found that our civil legal aid system is incapable of responding to the civil legal needs of low-income and vulnerable people, many of whom are victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
The Legislature’s 2015 risk-assessment study found domestic violence (DV) to be the greatest predictor of violent recidivism, not just of domestic violence, but all violent crime. DV victims who are forced to stay in an abusive relationship because they can’t afford a lawyer to fight for their rights are much more likely to be victimized again and again. The Civil Legal Needs Study details how domestic violence victims face up to 18 discrete legal problems that affect every aspect of their safety and most of which flow directly from their victimization.
Too often there is no help coming. The Legislature should change that this year by funding the Civil Justice Reinvestment Plan developed by a bipartisan legislative committee and ensure that helping crime victims is a priority. Simply put, when low-income people must face the justice system with inadequate legal aid, that is not just wrong, it is a failure by all of us involved in that justice system.
Civil legal aid is a sound public safety investment and promotes justice within the framework of the rule of law. The Legislature must help us live up to the most fundamental principle of our justice system — that it be open to all, not just those who can afford it.
Dan Satterberg is King County prosecuting attorney and Jon Tunheim is Thurston County prosecuting attorney.