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Chicago lawmakers, advocates call for $10 million in legal help for poor

Tanya D. Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center in Lawndale, speaks at a press conference Monday to urge lawmakers to approve the Access to Justice Act, which would set aside $10 million to train staff to help poor residents across the state navigate the legal system. At the lectern is state Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, a co-sponsor of the bill. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Poor Illinoisans with legal troubles would get $10 million to help them navigate court systems across the state under a bill pending in the state legislature.

Rep. Art Turner on Monday urged his fellow state lawmakers to pass his Access to Justice Act before the legislative session ends next month.

“We should not leave [Springield] without making sure this is funded in this budget,” Turner said at a press conference at the Westside Justice Center, a community organization that runs a Chicago-based version of what could be a statewide model for legal services.

Joining Turner were Rep. Theresa Mah and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

An attorney’s help can be crucial for dealing with building code violations, or trying to expunge a criminal record — but many people can’t afford legal help.

Julieta Bolivar’s legal battle was about staying in the country.

Bolivar became a “community advocate” through Chicago’s Resurrection Project so she could help others get the same kind of legal assistance that saved her from being deported nearly two decades ago.

Bolivar, who arrived in the U.S. on a visa as a teenager, faced deportation after state troopers in Pennsylvania stopped to help her with a flat tire and demanded to see her immigration paperwork. Bolivar spent two years in immigration court before receiving a green card, a process complicated by paperwork she signed under pressure from ICE officials — before she had a lawyer.

“I had a Social Security number, I was working and helping at my church and I had three kids who were born here, and they said I had to go back to Bolivia, a country where I had no family,” said Bolivar. “I had to fight back. … People who did not have help, for them it was a disaster.”

Executive Director Tanya D. Woods said the $10 million would build organizations across the state similar to the Westside Justice Center. That Lawndale-based legal clinic helps poor residents battle in courtrooms over matters ranging from getting a car out of an impound yard to fighting city building code tickets that might end up forcing a low-income family out of their home.

“It would be a misconception to say that this is a program that is going to help people ‘get out’ of something they’ve done,” Woods said. “It’s a matter of not having the court system weigh on poor people more oppressively than it has to.”

In 2017, Tanya Woods (left) helped West Side homeowner Gloria Julia Lahus, who had come to the Westside Justice Center seeking help to pay her property taxes. | Provided photo
In 2017, Tanya Woods (left) helped West Side homeowner Gloria Julia Lahus, who had come to the Westside Justice Center seeking help to pay her property taxes. | Provided photo