Rutgers Law Associates (RLA) and Vital Strategies recently announced the launch of a center to provide free legal services for people who use drugs in New Jersey. It partners with harm reduction providers, who refer people they work with. The legal center doesn’t currently represent clients in court, but can help them in strengthening their cases. It can also help people to obtain housing and other rights and benefits, and will document cases of discrimination they face.
The Rutgers Law Center for People Who Use Drugs is being funded by a $250,000 grant from Vital Strategies, a global public health organization. “People who use drugs are very often viewed as ‘other’ and non-deserving,” Andrew J. Rothman, RLA managing attorney, said in a statement. “We are hoping we can have a broad impact in the state by simply doing this work, bringing visibility to this population, and getting decision makers to think about these folks in a different way.”
People who use illicit drugs are frequently denied very basic rights. Besides jail and a criminal record, drug use can be used as grounds to evict you from housing, take away your children, fire you or prevent your being hired, or deport you. Your access to public benefits like disability insurance or food stamps could also be taken away.
“We issued a survey to our harm reduction partners to get a sense of the legal needs people have.”
The new center aims to protect people from these damaging outcomes. RLA will initially focus on helping people get social security benefits, find housing, process discrimination claims, get state ID cards and drivers licenses, and clear outstanding warrants. It will also work to help restore parental visitation rights, and address barriers to getting a job.
To get a better picture of how the center will operate, Filter spoke with Dionna King, a technical advisor for Vital Strategies’ overdose prevention program. King is directly involved in the rollout of the Rutgers Law Center for People Who Use Drugs.
Alexander Lekhtman: What was the thinking behind this initiative?
Dionna King: This was inspired by all the work I’ve been doing in drug policy up until now, just understanding that people who use drugs face various forms of discrimination, and legal challenges as a result of criminalization. [RLA] also has a history of doing legal partnerships with diverse agencies to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.
We hope to serve at least 250 clients by the end of this first grant period, which ends in September 2023.
How do you know which services people who use drugs need the most?
We issued a survey to our harm reduction partners to get a sense of the legal needs people have, and learned it was a range. Folks are experiencing housing discrimination—not being able to access housing or being pushed out because of their substance use. A lot of people needed support around benefits programs, like getting their social security benefits.
Many people are lacking documentation or legal ID. Folks who are unhoused sometimes live in tent encampments; when those are disrupted, people’s paperwork gets lost in the shuffle. And if you don’t have ID, you can’t access other services.
What problems are people facing when dealing with police and courts?
On the criminal-legal side, people reported having their harm reduction supplies being confiscated by law enforcement. They’re accessing a syringe service program, and if they have syringes or naloxone on them, they’re having that taken by police. A lot of people also had outstanding warrants they needed support in clearing.
“We’re recording these forms of discrimination we’re seeing and using it to inform potential future work.”
[We’re] also supporting people that have open criminal cases and have public defenders working on them. We’re giving them legal advice to support their current cases, to better strengthen the work their lawyers are doing.
Unfortunately now, the attorneys don’t have the capacity to do direct representation, but they can make referrals to public defenders. We’re recording these forms of discrimination we’re seeing and using it to inform potential future policy work or impact litigation. We want to focus on the discriminatory patterns so we can make a larger case for systemic change.
This work seems similar to what’s known as a “medical-legal partnership,” when health care staff work closely with attorneys to help patients facing not just medical crises but also legal problems like eviction. Is that an accurate comparison?
We pulled from several examples of medical-legal partnerships, but generally these were MLPs that work with treatment providers, so it was a little bit different. They are meeting people in different times in their drug-use continuum, as opposed to meeting people in a harm reduction environment. We wanted to emphasize providing services to folks most vulnerable to overdose.
I don’t believe there’s a similar model in the country, but we did look to international examples. There was a program in Ukraine that was a harm reduction MLP. Open Society Foundations (OSF) conducted a study and found really good practices and value in this approach, and we took from that in our program design.
We wanted to make sure this provided a meaningful service but also didn’t overburden harm reduction providers because they already do so much.
Harm reduction providers, I understand, are the link between you and the people who need legal services. How are people eligible for the program?
The only condition is you have to be referred by a harm reduction provider. There are seven functioning in New Jersey right now. We didn’t want this to be completely open and overburdening the attorney.
“One of our clients was seeking access to inpatient drug treatment, and had mobility issues. The provider wouldn’t treat them because they considered them a fall risk. That’s purely discrimination.”
Is it difficult to do this work with people who may have a history of being mistreated by not just cops and judges, but in some cases even bad experiences with public defenders?
That’s why we emphasize the relationship building component. People do have these experiences with legal services that may skew their perspective on if the attorney is looking out for their best interest. And I don’t want to denigrate public defenders; I think they do fantastic work under very unfortunate circumstances that don’t enable their success for the people they serve.
So how do you build on the work pubic defenders do, and give people a better chance to fight for their rights?
Public defenders can only look at what’s in front of them, and addressing that immediate need. We want to use this law center to inform a larger systemic change that needs to happen. For example, one of our clients was seeking access to inpatient drug treatment, and had mobility issues. The provider wouldn’t treat them because they considered them a fall risk. That’s purely discrimination.
Is there a pattern of discrimination against other people who have other forms of disability trying to receive treatment? We have this case in front of us that gives us an example of how this discrimination is playing out.
Photograph via US Social Security Administration
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received restricted grants from OSF to support filmmaking and other work around methadone.