The SCLAID Centennial Access to Justice Award
This award recognizes two young lawyers, one from a civil legal aid practice and one from a public defense practice, for exceptional achievements on behalf of their clients and/or in advancement of the cause of access to justice. The objective of this award is to highlight and raise awareness of exemplary and innovative work being undertaken across the nation by the next generation of leaders in the fields of civil legal aid and public defense. By broadly disseminating descriptions of the accomplishments of the Award recipients, SCLAID intends to provide insights, best practices, and inspiration to attorneys throughout the public interest community. In addition, by including a scholarship component to the Award to defray student loan expenses, SCLAID is working to raise awareness of the importance of addressing student loan debt as a necessity in the successful retention of young public interest lawyers, while also further incentivizing submission of nominations of qualified nominees.
As SCLAID looks back on its history during the centennial anniversary of its founding, this award was created as a means of looking forward through the current contributions and future promise that the best and the brightest young lawyers bring to their work and commitment to the access-to-justice community.
Meet the 2020 Award Winners
Promoting Inmate Rehabilitation through Reading
Amalia Beckner is an Assistant Public Defender in the Felony Trial Division of the Harris County Public Defender's Office (PDO) in Houston, Texas. In addition to representing clients, in 2018 she started a nationally recognized book club in the Harris County Jail for women in a maximum-security unit, meeting every two weeks in the jail to discuss works of fiction and nonfiction. The project was inspired by the recognition that education programs make jails safer and reduce rates of recidivism when people reenter society, and this innovative approach to rehabilitation is already producing positive results for the women inmates who have participated.
Ms. Beckner began the project by crowdfunding books for prisoners back in 2018. Initially started as a social media outreach effort, coverage by the Houston Chronicle resulted in thousands of dollars in donations contributed to purchase hundreds of books. Breaking precedent, the jail dropped its rules on how many books each inmate could have at a time and also began to accept donated paperback books from the public defender’s office. In the fall of 2018, Ms. Beckner held a book drive that resulted in roughly 1,000 books being donated to the jail.
Ms. Beckner's crowdfunding book program caused the head Chaplain of the Harris County Sheriff's Office to reach out to her. The jail had educational programs for lower security female inmates, but nothing for those charged with the most serious offenses, such as capital murder, aggravated assault, robbery. The result of this outreach was Ms. Beckner's creation of a book club to fill the educational program gap for these inmates. She began meeting with ten to twenty women on Monday afternoons every two weeks. She would moderate a discussion among the women about a book they had read. Books included The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Silver Sparrow and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; American Street by Ibi Zoboi; Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Dear Martin by Nic Stone; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Sometimes she brought writers to talk about their work and answer questions.
The book club's effect upon justice is striking. Prior to implementation, women in maximum security received no educational services; after a few months of the program, jail staff reported that disciplinary incidents among the women decreased since the program started. The women in the program improved their literacy, increased their self-worth, kept themselves occupied, reduced their opportunities to offend, and reflected their likelihood of rehabilitation. However, the results of Ms. Beckner's work extend beyond the benefits to the individual women. The program has illuminated the benefit of education for inmates. It has resulted in the creation of a similar book club for male inmates. It got attention from jails and prisons around the United States interested in book clubs of their own. It also improved the relationship between the public defender’s office and the jail staff.
During all this time, Ms. Beckner was a full-time felony trial attorney with many clients. Books allowed her to help her clients beyond their criminal cases. Clients told her that books relieved their anxiety; one came to understand his bipolar disorder better after reading The Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love by Zack McDermott. She has even been able to advocate for reduced sentences for clients who benefitted from the reading program.
Ms. Beckner earned her JD from UCLA School of Law in 2014, graduating from the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy. While in law school, Beckner interned in the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office and also participated in criminal defense and parole clinics that ignited her passion for public defense. Upon graduating, she held a UCLA Public Service Fellowship with a placement in the Harris County PDO. In 2015, she joined the Harris County PDO as the first lawyer hired directly out of law school.
Ms. Beckner is a graduate of both the Gideon's Promise Core 101 training program, and the Trial Lawyer's College. She has also written about public defense issues for The Texas Observer. She earned her BA from the University of Chicago, where she majored in History and Political Science, and grew up in Austin, Texas.
Bridging the Rural Justice Gap through Medical-Legal Partnerships
Kallie Dale-Ramos is the staff attorney for the Montana Health Justice Partnership, a state-wide medical-legal partnership at Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA). She provides advice, limited services, and representation for patients of community health care centers, covering over 140,000 square miles. Ms. Dale-Ramos's work focuses on bridging the justice gap for rural Montanans who have civil legal issues in the areas of family law, housing law, public benefits, education access, employment law, consumer protection, and debt issues.
Ms. Dale-Ramos was raised in Montana and joined MLSA in 2016 to advocate for marginalized communities to have equal access to justice, particularly for low-income Montanans living in rural areas. With less than a year of practicing law under her belt, she went to work building MLSA's innovative Montana Health Justice Partnership (MHJP). This project is the first medical-legal partnership in U.S. to partner with a state-wide primary care association to specifically target rural communities and was created in partnership with four community health centers and the Montana Primary Care Association.
This new project, pairing together doctors and lawyers, demanded dedication and drive if it was to succeed. Because it was a pilot project, Ms. Dale-Ramos could not simply replicate MLSA’s past work to get things done. Nor could she copy other states on how the MHJP should function - the MHJP was the first medical-legal partnership in U.S. specifically designed to serve multiple, rural communities whereas the other models available were based inside large urban hospitals. So she created policies and procedures as she developed the project, working closely with community health center partners and other shareholders to determine how the project should function and what needed to be done to ensure that the project was sustainable over the long term. She coordinated with four health centers spread across the state to develop screening procedures for health center staff to use to identify civil legal problems amongst their patients; created training materials and provide training to all partner health center staff; developed procedures for health centers to refer patients with civil legal needs to MLSA; and modified internal MLSA systems to better serve health center partners' needs.
With these procedures in place, Ms. Dale Ramos now provides legal services to patients facing a variety of legal problems, including issues with housing, debt, family violence, denial of benefits such as social security, employment, health care access, and more. As part of this work, Ms. Dale-Ramos travels to each community health center every other week on a rotating basis. In a state as large as Montana, this means she spends more than 40 hours on the road each month, with some of the partner health centers up to 5 hours away from her office in Helena. To date, Ms. Dale-Ramos has driven over 50,000 miles to provide necessary in-person services to vulnerable clients and train health center staff. She and other MLSA staff have handled a total of 672 cases referred from the MHJP partners, helping 1,331 patients and their family members (including children) address their health-harming legal problems and live safer, healthier lives.
Since the project began in 2016, MLSA has worked to expand the MHJP service model, adding two additional rural community health center partners and a paralegal to the MHJP in 2017. In 2019 and continuing into 2020, Ms. Dale-Ramos has spearheaded and is coordinating the launch of several expansion projects, and the MJHP is now fully financially sustainable due to the contributions of its partners, which is a testament to the project's success. In the civil legal aid world, reaching full project sustainability is rare. This was only possible because of Ms. Dale-Ramos's commitment to the project and ability to communicate with project partners, proving that the benefits to their patients was well worth the added financial commitment. Ms. Dale Ramos's tireless efforts to ensure the success of the original MHJP and to develop new expansion projects mean that more low-income Montanans than ever are now able to access justice, particularly those living in rural and remote areas.
Ms. Dale-Ramos earned her BAs in history and political science from the University of Michigan and her J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. While at UT, Ms. Dale-Ramos represented clients during immigration proceedings and served as a human rights law scholar at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. Before starting at MLSA, Ms. Dale-Ramos was a legal fellow at the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, advocating for legal reforms to increase tribal sovereignty in cases of violence against women.