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Healey Administration frames AGO as ‘the people’s law firm’

Highlights multilingual services, outreach

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Healey Administration frames AGO as ‘the people’s law firm’
Attorney General Maura Healey urged representatives of ethnic media to educate their communities of the resources offered to them by her Office.

Residents of any neighborhood, speaking any language, should feel welcome to call upon Attorney General Maura Healey’s office for legal aid in matters criminal and non-criminal. That was the message put forth at an ethnic media roundtable hosted by the attorney general last week. A number of policy and operational initiatives also occupied the agenda.

Multilingual service

“This is really the people’s law firm. People should not be afraid to call us. They should not be afraid if they do not speak English to call,” said Marcony Almeida-Barros, head of Healey’s Community Engagement Division, which launched in May.

Almeida-Barros said staff includes speakers of various languages and that they will make an effort to find translators for any languages not covered. Currently the Attorney General Office’s website offers some forms in languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, Liao, Khmer, and Simplified Chinese.

In the community

To further outreach, the office will hold events in different neighborhoods and seek advice on where to locate materials so that they are more accessible to local communities.

“This office is not only here, it is across the state to serve them [community members] in their languages as well,” said Healey.

Almeida-Barros and Healey said they are participating in community events and holding evening meetings, dubbed “action hours,” at various community locations. The aim is to provide convenient opportunities outside of normal work hours for people to bring concerns and questions. The second action hours event was held in Dorchester last week. One hundred people attended, said Chloe Gotsis, deputy press secretary of the Communications Division.

Issues big and small

Healey sought to change perception that the Attorney General’s Office solely handles criminal law enforcement and encouraged residents to come forward with problems.

“The vast majority of the work in this office — perhaps 85 percent — is non-criminal,” and focused on issues such as protecting consumers’ rights, workers’ rights and keeping down electricity bills, she said.

The meeting also allowed Healey to outline the main issues her office seeks to tackle: employee earned sick time, domestic workers’ rights, opioid addiction and criminal justice reform.

Earned sick time

Lower-wage workers and workers in vulnerable employment situations are the most likely to be denied full access to accruing and taking sick time to care for themselves or their family, said Healey. She recalled a fast food worker she met at a public hearing in Lowell, who said she went to work with a 101-degree temperature out of fear of losing her paycheck.

Healy said her office seeks to raise workers’ awareness of their right to sick time.

As of July 1, 2015, a new Earned Sick Time Law guarantees most full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary employees the right to accrue up to 40 hours of sick time. For employers of at least 11 employees, the sick time must be paid. Independent contracts are not covered under this, as they are not classified as employees.

According to the Attorney General Office’s Earned Sick Time FAQs “the only employers [in Massachusetts] not required to provide earned sick time are the United States government, Massachusetts cities and towns, and certain other local public employers, such as school committees, including regional schools and educational collaboratives.

Domestic workers

In April 1, 2015 a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights went into effect to combat the vulnerable working situation many of them face.

The Bill of Rights establishes protections affecting areas such as work hours, rest time, termination and employer record keeping. All domestic workers, regardless of immigration status, are protected under the law, according to the Attorney General Office’s website.

“As an undocumented person in this state, you have rights. We will protect you. We will protect your rights,” said Healey.

Healey, whose office is responsible for enforcing the law, said it gives them the ability to work directly with employers and review contracts that establish employers’ obligations.

Tackling addiction

The Attorney General’s Office currently targets heroin, opioid and pain killer addiction as policy priorities.

Outreach include better connecting people to treatments and increasing first responders’ access to naloxone (also known under the brand name Narcan), a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

In August, Healey and state Rep. John Fernandes, chairman of the House Joint Committee on the Judiciary, also pushed for the criminalization of trafficking fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Healey said the office also will identify and educate dentists and doctors who may be prescribing pain medications unnecessarily.

“Four out of five heroine users started with pain medication, obtained legally or illegally,” said Healey. “The issue cuts across all socioeconomic levels and races.”

Criminal justice reform

As for the system as a whole, the attorney general wrote a letter to the state legislature advocating for programs that reduce incarceration rates, provide better rehabilitation to those behind bars, and assist reintegration into the community for those who are released.

“We must shift the lens by increasing our focus on prevention, intervention, and treatment programs, reducing barriers and improving training for those coming out of correctional facilities, updating our statutes to avoid disproportionate punishment for certain crimes, and maximizing the effectiveness of tax payer dollars by investing in supervision and reentry services,” Healey wrote in a letter to William Brownsberger, chair of the Senate’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, in June 2015.

In her letter, Healey also appealed for legislation to end the automatic suspension of drivers’ licenses and license reinstatement fees for non-motor-vehicle-related drug offenses. Such measures, she told roundtable attendees, prevent individuals from important life needs such as going to work, picking up children from school or bringing an elderly parent to the hospital.

“[The movement to get rid of automatic suspension] is gaining a lot of traction there [in the Legislature] and I’m hopeful that that will happen,” Healey said.

Last week, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of such a bill. The House has not yet voted.

Healey’s letter expressed support for reducing the severity with which some offenses are regarded. This included eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and downgrading some property-related crimes, such as shoplifting or destruction of property, to misdemeanors for property involving less monetary value.

As for reducing likelihood of youth entering the criminal justice system, Healey wrote in favor of shifting some correctional funds toward job creation for youth facing barriers to employment along with keeping at-risk youth in school.

Scams, domestic abuse and blight

Consumer targeting scams were another issue on the agenda. Healey said her office seeks to raise awareness of for-profit schools that lure students with advertisements, then leave them heaped with debt and with meaningless degrees. The AG’s office also receives many reports of bogus promises made to individuals on immigration matters, issued by persons claiming to be lawyers or other service professionals.

On a separate front, another initiative features a collaboration with the New England Patriots to fund domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and preventions programs in 90 high schools across the state, so as to stop abusive behavior before it starts.

The AG’s office also works with communities to identify abandoned properties at risk of becoming sites of violence or blight and facilitate strategies to restore them.