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Kentucky Among Worst States In Accessibility for Poor, Disabled in Criminal Justice, Study Says

National Center for Access to Justice
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Kentucky is among the worst states in the U.S. at providing vulnerable populations with accessibility to critical elements of the justice system, according to the Justice Index study released this month by the National Center for Access to Justice.

The vulnerable populations include the poor, disabled and non-English speakers. The study says they're more likely to lack access to legal representation, self-representation supports, assistance for non-English speakers and supports for people with disabilities.

The Justice Index study is the first of its kind, said David Udell, the executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice.

Researchers and attorneys examined those four critical areas of justice in each state to come up with a composite score that is meant to be a snapshot into the court system, he said.

He said a low composite score is not a “harsh indictment” of wrongdoing by a state’s criminal and civil justice system. Rather, the score should spark discussions about how communities can begin to take responsibility for ensuring overarching equality.

Kentucky garnered a composite score of 33.4, the study said. The only composite score lower was Oklahoma.  

The national average was 51.

Here is a map with each state’s composite score.

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Credit National Center for Access to Justice
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So why did Kentucky get such low marks?

For starters, the state’s poorer populations lack adequate access to attorneys, Udell said.

The study found that there is less than one (.82) attorney per every 10,000 residents that is available to provide free legal assistance to low income people in civil legal matters. 

To compare, the rate of attorneys who charge a fee for representation in the state is about 30 per 10,000 residents, according to the study.

“Those individuals have the same legal needs as any other person with economic means, they have issues relating to their shelter, relating to their economic stability, to their personal safety,” said Jeff Been, the executive director of Louisville’s Legal Aid Society, which focuses on providing low income residents with legal representation at little to no cost.

Been said his office oversees a 15 county region in which nearly 190,000 people live at or below the poverty line. 

Annually, the Legal Aid Society assists about 5,000 people, but the need for service is much greater, Been said.

“For every person who seeks our help, we are having to turn away one other person, so we are meeting about 50 percent of the need in the community,” he said.

He said there needs to be a financial commitment on a federal and state level to provide the resources that can help low-income residents acquire proper representation.

Without funding, he said the principle of providing civil legal aid to those in need is just a “goal, an aspiration, a promise” that will not be met.

“We must ensure that the most vulnerable among us have access to that justice system,” he said.

Here is a look at the number of available civil legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in each state.

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Credit National Center for Access to Justice
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Beyond a lack of legal aid for poorer residents, Kentucky also scored very low (20.3) regarding supports for people who appear in court without a lawyer, according to the study.

Only Mississippi scored lower.

One reason for the low rating is that Kentucky has no law requiring judges to ensure that self-represented litigants are fairly heard, Udell said.

Here is a look at how all states fared in this category.

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Credit National Center for Access to Justice
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Regarding people with disability having access to the civil and criminal court systems, Kentucky is lacking a few key policies, Udell said.

For instance, there is no state law or policy that requires courts to allow service animals, according to the report.

Here is a look at how states compare in this category.

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Credit National Center for Access to Justice
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In terms of providing supports for people with limited English speaking ability, Kentucky received a  relatively high rating of 58.3.  A reason for the high ranking, Udell said, is the state law that requires an interpreter be placed in a civil or criminal court for all proceedings involving a person with limited English speaking skills.

Here is a look at how Kentucky compared to the rest of the country when it comes to supporting non-English speaking populations.

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Credit National Center for Access to Justice
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Been said the Justice Index should prompt a discussion.

“It should cause us to look at how we can do better,” he said.  “We all can pull together to make it better for our neighbors.”

Correction:  A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Jeff Been's name.

Copyright 2014 89.3 WFPL News Louisville

Jacob Ryan is the urban affairs reporter forWFPL.
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