A civil justice system for all
In the United States, when a suspect is accused of a crime, he or she is guaranteed the right to an attorney. But when someone is the victim of an abusive spouse or landlord, when a foster child needs help navigating the legal system, or when a disabled veteran is improperly denied government benefits, there is no such guarantee of representation.
For low-income individuals and families confronting civil legal issues such as these, often there is only legal aid. Even in the best of times, legal aid has historically only been able to meet about 20 percent of the need for civil legal assistance.
And these are not the best of times. Florida's Interest on Trust Accounts Program, administered by the Florida Bar Foundation, has been providing about a third of the funding for legal aid organizations in all 67 Florida counties in recent years. But the foundation's revenue, tied directly to the interest rates banks pay depositors, has plummeted by 88 percent in three years with interest rates held near zero since late 2008. The foundation has made significant funding cuts to Florida's local legal aid organizations, and yet it anticipates further cuts of about 71 percent over the next three years now that its reserves are all but gone. This is totally devastating to all kinds of people, including children, the elderly, the disabled and others with nowhere else to turn for legal help.
Florida TaxWatch found that civil legal assistance generated $4.78 of economic impact for every $1 spent on legal aid by federal, state and local governments, the Florida Bar Foundation, community foundations and donors. It also created more than 2,000 jobs outside of legal aid.
As of 2011, the legislatures in 23 states provide civil legal assistance funding, recognizing that access to legal assistance and the courts is not only vital to the functioning of democracy but also to the stability of families and communities. As it has for the last 10 years, the Florida Legislature has appropriated funding for legal aid again this year; this time $2 million. Clearly, our Legislature recognizes the need for this critical funding for civil legal assistance. We are hopeful that Gov. Rick Scott will recognize the tremendous benefits of this program and will allow it to continue to assist so many of Florida's low-income families.
Michele Kane Cummings, 2011-12 president, Florida Bar Foundation, Orlando
Audit faults school policing March 11
Look to family issues
An audit faults school policing? Of course it does. Until our elite Florida Legislature stops passing bills to enhance their personal positions in life while diminishing the positions of those providing the most service to others, we will continue to see this placing of blame for why things are wrong on the backs of the people who least deserve it.
Our public servants are now looking forward to a sixth year with no raise while the cost of everything increases around them. Workloads increase while hiring decreases.
More and more families are struggling. Tell students to try having a good day in a classroom when their basic needs have not been met. Let's look to the real reasons there are behavior problems in schools and at least make an effort to fix what is happening in our students' lives so that policing won't be required.
It doesn't always begin and end with what our "devalued" public servants do or don't do.
Nancy Ellington, Kenneth City
Football like gang warfare March 10, letter
There's an alternative
The letter writer complained about pro football being a mess and wonders how much longer our society is going to tolerate it.
I agree with him. His letter echoes Daniel Ruth's column written last July titled, "How football stopped being fun." According to Ruth, the Wall Street Journal analyzed the average football game and discovered that the real time between the snap of the ball and end of the play over the course of four, 15-minute quarters totaled 11 actual minutes of "action" on the field. My advice is to become a Rays baseball fan like I did and enjoy professional sports again.
Morris Grossman, Sun City Center
A boom and a bust | March 11
The outstanding front-page photograph of strawberry farmworker Efrain Napooseno carrying his bounty reminded me of the pose of an ancient Mayan ruler. Any Floridian who has ever witnessed the backbreaking labor of these workers should nod to the "kings of the field" for their skill in bringing such riches to our tables. Thanks, John Pendygraft, for a wonderful photo.
Jayne Kirse, Apollo Beach
Make program count
Voluntary prekindergarten is a valuable government-funded program for children who turn 4 years old by Sept. 1. It guarantees a quality education in a preschool setting. As a preschool teacher and center director, I do, however, question one aspect of the program: the no-repeat policy.
This is the time of year for assessments. If a child does not meet the program's required standards, parents must pay out of pocket for a second year of the program.
As teachers, we know that children develop at different rates. Children entering the voluntary pre-K classroom can turn 5 as early as September or as late as August. There is almost a whole year's difference in these ages, so not all children will meet the same standards developmentally.
Despite a teacher's recommendations to repeat, children may move on due to financial reasons. Children who have disabilities, enrolled in an inclusion classroom, may also need a second year before moving on.
I would like to see notification of children at risk and a secondary assessment done to determine if a child needs a second year of free voluntary prekindergarten. Let's make sure the children who really need it get a fair shot at a successful kindergarten year.
Joanne Hanson, Clearwater
Morning maestro hits right tone March 9
They were on their feet
I'd like to offer an addendum to John Fleming's review of the Florida Orchestra's Thursday Coffee Concert performance. Not only was the Mahaffey Theater filled to the top, but almost all of those folks were standing and cheering at the conclusion of another special performance. Maestro Stuart Malina has quickly captured the Tampa Bay audience with his personality and wonderful interpretations. With so many talented musicians to direct, he has a wonderful opportunity and has already taken us to a new level. Bravo!
Chuck Feldschau, Ypsilanti, Mich.