The Biden administration’s new $6 million office to narrow inequality in the justice system has hired as its director a former public defender who says “oftentimes justice may mean never filing a case.” The veteran attorney will lead the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), established after a Department of Justice (DOJ) probe found significant gaps in equal access to justice for racial minorities and inequities that the agency claims were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice,” Attorney General Merrick Garland proclaimed when launching the ATJ last fall as a standalone DOJ post with a staff of eight that includes six attorneys. “And because we do not yet have equal access to justice in America, the task before us is urgent,” Garland added. The Biden administration plans to increase the ATJ budget by 66.7% next year and will add 42 new positions as well as 18 attorneys.
Rachel Rossi, a former Los Angeles County and federal public defender who served as the DOJ’s inaugural “Anti-Hate Coordinator,” will lead the ATJ. A failed run for L.A. District Attorney was inspired by “only seeing Black and brown people locked up,” Rossi said during her 2020 campaign to be the county’s top prosecutor. She worked for Democrat Senator Richard Durbin and helped draft a federal prison reform bill that slashed mandatory minimum sentences and made early release possible for certain inmates. When she was named ATJ director last week, Rossi said she has “seen firsthand how access to justice can make the difference in keeping families together, people in their homes and victims safe from violence.” Rossi added that she will examine and reimagine tools and systems to make justice more accessible for all. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta praised Rossi, saying that “disrupting the devastating connections between race, poverty and injustice is hard work that requires exactly the kind of dedication and vision” Rossi has displayed at the DOJ.
The ATJ, which was originally launched by Obama Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010 and shut down by Trump, will work to fulfill the recommendations of the recent DOJ probe that led to its revival. Chiefly, the review found that the agency needs to expand and modernize its “access-to-justice function” to address the most urgent legal needs of communities across the country. This will be accomplished by developing new tools to reduce the justice gap, breaking down existing silos to advance the most innovative solutions across all levels of government and several other priority areas, which include the following: Environmental justice, indigent defense, pursuing racial equity, fostering health justice and medical legal partnerships in the wake of COVID-19, expanding legal representation in immigration proceedings, self-help court programs and ensuring economic opportunity and fairness. “The Department of Justice and the Department of Equal Justice are the same thing,” according to the report of the probe. “There can be no full achievement of the rule of law, safety, or civil rights without it. And there can be no equal justice without equal access to justice.”
Just weeks ago, the DOJ issued a Justice Equity Action Plan as part of the Biden administration’s broad effort to help marginalized communities. Among its key initiatives is a reform in law enforcement practices that directs federal prosecutors to ignore maximum sentencing under the law. That will help “avoid unwarranted disparities, promote fair outcomes in sentencing, and seek justice in every case,” according to the new Biden administration plan. The DOJ has issued prosecutors guidance requiring decisions about charging, plea agreements, and advocacy at sentencing to be based on “an individualized assessment of relevant facts, and not to reflexively rely on the maximum punishments allowable under law.” The initiative also creates a new Language Access Coordinator to report hate crimes in at least 10 languages, including six of the most frequently spoken Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI). An Anti-Hate Coordinator (Rossi was recently replaced by Saeed Mody) will “empower communities targeted by hate” and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been directed to designate hate crimes as “one of its highest-level national threat priorities.” The change will force the FBI to make hate crimes a focus for all of its 56 field offices, according to the new policy. The DOJ will also award over $21 million to help state and local agencies as well as community organizations “address an alarming rise in violent and property crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.”