Fair share

January 08, 2007

The Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland is the lawyer for many of the state's neediest in times of great need: An unemployed father facing eviction. A migrant worker who hasn't been paid. A disabled senior in need of assistance. A single mother seeking money from a deadbeat dad. Nearly half of its 47,156 clients in 2005 lived in Baltimore, yet the city routinely shortchanges Legal Aid in its annual contribution, giving considerably less than suburban counties. It's time for the city to pay its fair share.

A committee of the City Council has taken the unusual step of formally urging that the city increase its contribution to $250,000; that's reasonable given the number of Baltimoreans Legal Aid serves.

Three decades ago, the Legal Aid Bureau and others like it across the country were funded primarily through the federal Legal Services Corp. In the mid-1990s, the Republican Congress led an assault on legal services for the poor, trying to put the Legal Services Corp. out of business. Today, about a fifth of the state Legal Aid Bureau's $18 million operating budget comes from the corporation. The rest comes from state contracts, interest on lawyers' trust accounts and other court fees, and local government contributions of about $493,000. Baltimore contributes just $15,000, a paltry sum indeed.

Legal Aid would use the additional money to meet its expenses, as utility and other costs have increased, says Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., the executive director of Legal Aid. Of his 130 lawyers, those starting out get paid $41,000 a year - less than a first-year public defender or assistant attorney general.

When poor people are charged criminally, they are entitled to a lawyer under the law. But if an unscrupulous landlord victimizes those same people, they have to face that challenge on their own. That's where Legal Aid comes in.

Its work can prevent smaller problems from becoming major - and more costly - issues down the road: Evictions can lead to homelessness. Children in need of assistance can end up in foster care. Pregnant women who are legal immigrants and denied state medical care may wind up in the emergency room.

As she reviews the city budget proposal for next year, Mayor-to-be Sheila Dixon should revise Baltimore's previously stingy grant to the Legal Aid Bureau, especially after back-to-back years of budget surpluses. Baltimore can contribute more now or pay later.

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