The Vera Institute of Justice established the Legal Action Center (LAC) in 1973 to break the cycle of addiction and crime. When the HIV epidemic tore apart communities already affected by addiction and incarceration, we expanded our mission to help improve the lives of men and women trying to cope with these multiple crises.
Over four decades, LAC’s legal and policy projects have helped hundreds of thousands of men and women by expanding addiction treatment, fighting stigma and discrimination, and protecting privacy rights crucial to getting and staying in care. We have also broken down barriers that keep millions of people with criminal records from employment, housing, education and other opportunities. Our work has helped to vastly increase alternatives to incarceration and achieve historic sentencing reforms as well as dozens of other policies that promote a public health approach to addiction, HIV/AIDS, and the criminal justice system.
The overwhelming majority of our clients are from low-income communities of color that have been hit the hardest by mass incarceration and punitive drug policies. Yet our work has helped people across all incomes and races overcome discriminatory barriers to employment, housing, education and health care. We have strengthened families and restored human dignity, while promoting public safety.
We Began with Litigation
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, LAC primarily pursued a litigation strategy, successfully challenging such employers as the New York City Transit Authority and the U.S. Postal Service for refusing to hire people with criminal records or in alcohol and drug treatment. We sued the Veterans’ Administration for denying extended educational benefits to GI’s in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The Veterans’ Administration had contended that addiction was “willful misconduct” rather than a disease. While the Supreme Court overturned our victories, the case motivated Congress to come to the aid of thousands of veterans by repealing the discriminatory rule on which the Court had based its objections.
During the height of the HIV epidemic in the late 1980s, LAC became the foremost expert in helping people with HIV confront discrimination and privacy violations. LAC gained international attention in 1999 when we successfully sued the Adirondack Girl Scouts Council for discrimination on behalf of a 9-year-old girl who had been denied admission to several troops because of her HIV status. Almost a decade later in 2010, LAC won a landmark case against a day camp that violated anti-discrimination laws by excluding a 10-year-old boy with AIDS. Over the decades, LAC has won settlements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for individuals with HIV and AIDS by challenging breaches of their right to confidentiality.
Through the 1990s, LAC won important rulings to extend access to addiction treatment by challenging “NIMBY” (Not-In-My-Backyard) practices that make it difficult to locate new treatment programs. Our 1997 case, Innovative Health Systems v. City of White Plains, led to the first federal appeals court ruling in the country holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits municipalities from using zoning laws to exclude alcohol and drug treatment programs.
LAC continues to bring precedent-setting litigation. For information about our current case docket, along with descriptions of our direct legal services, please read What We Do. For more information about prior impact cases and highlights of our direct legal services project, please read “Legal Action Center’s Leading Cases.”
We Added Policy Advocacy, Research and Coalition Building
To have a broader systemic impact, LAC expanded into public policy advocacy and research in the early 1980s, promoting laws and policies that would protect and create opportunities for millions of people, families and communities across the country. Our New York offices began collaborating with state lawmakers and officials from health, mental health, substance use, labor and justice agencies. In 1989 we opened LAC’s Washington, D.C. office to consult with members of Congress and officials at the federal level. In addition, staff at both locations began to collaborate with advocates, service providers, government officials and policy makers throughout the country to advance sound policy in the areas of addiction, criminal justice and HIV/AIDS.
Over the years, the Legal Action Center has won many policy victories.
In our HIV policy area, we helped draft New York State’s first-in-the-nation 1988 HIV confidentiality laws, which became models for the rest of the country. In the criminal justice arena, we helped enact the 2008 Second Chance Act which provides funding so states and localities can better address people’s needs when they return from incarceration to their communities. At the intersection of criminal justice and substance use, the Legal Action Center helped lead the campaign that won comprehensive reform in 2009 of the Rockefeller Drug Laws which had until then devastated so many communities through lengthy and disproportionate sentencing.
In the addiction arena, we helped secure protections for people with alcohol and drug histories in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Over the next 25 years, LAC helped generate over $1 billion in federal funding for alcohol and drug treatment, recovery and research programs. These services are vital to the 23 million Americans who suffer from substance use disorders. In 2008, we worked to enact the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires insurers to provide coverage for substance use treatment and mental health care that is equal to (at parity with) other medical and surgical benefits. Later in 2010, we helped enshrine these parity requirements in the Affordable Care Act.
Our research has led the way to policy reform.
To conduct the research that informed so much of our policy advocacy, in 1997 we launched the Arthur Liman Policy Institute. Through the Institute, we publish ground-breaking reports to help shape federal and state policies. Among our most influential was a 2002 study on drug law reform that predicted the dramatic cost savings–over a quarter billion dollars each year–that New York State would reap once it overhauled the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In 2004, we created a report and set of comprehensive web tools titled After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. These resources present a state-by-state explanation of the legal barriers people with criminal records confront. They, and dozens of other LAC publications, continue to inform our efforts to reduce reentry obstacles and provide the 80 million Americans with a criminal history on file the opportunity to lead productive lives once they return to their families and communities.
Through coalition-building we have achieved meaningful change.
To amplify our voice and pool our resources with organizations that shared our goals, for the past two decades the Legal Action Center has created and led advocacy coalitions and networks. In 2001, for example, we formed the National H.I.R.E. Network (Helping Individuals with Criminal Records enter through Employment). H.I.R.E provides opportunities for different advocacy groups to work in coalition while also maintaining a national clearinghouse of information on how to improve employment prospects for the formerly incarcerated. In another successful coalition-building effort, during the run-up to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), LAC helped form the Coalition for Whole Health—a group of over 100 national and state mental health and substance use disorder organizations. Staffed by LAC and co-chaired by LAC Director/President Paul Samuels, the Coalition was instrumental in helping win mental health and addiction service parity provisions in the ACA.
We Integrated Education, Training, and Technical Assistance
Because laws are only effective when people know about them, in the 1980s we began an education, training and technical assistance program for health and human service providers, government agencies, policymakers, the media, employers, and individuals across the nation. We have educated and assisted tens of thousands of people and institutions in every state. Through hundreds of trainings, dozens of print and web-based resources, and a telephone hotline, we have become the nation’s most relied upon authority on the legal and policy issues affecting individuals with histories of substance use, criminal justice involvement and HIV/AIDS. For information about our trainings, please read What We Do.
Our definitive guide to federal alcohol and drug confidentiality laws, Confidentiality and Communication remains the go-to resource for the country’s treatment and prevention providers and regulators. Our 2013 Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring, is now helping employers hire qualified individuals with criminal histories and abide by changing employment laws. In the spirit of collaboration that permeates so much of LAC’s work, this most recent publication was created in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Workrights Institute.
There Is More to Come
As the Legal Action Center looks to the future, we rely on the experience of over 40 years of research, advocacy, direct client services, education and training. The different facets of our work will continue to reinforce each other. Our legal efforts, for example, will not only win victories for individual clients, but they will also continue to keep LAC staff abreast of the day-to-day hurdles individuals living with HIV, criminal records, or addiction histories face. Our technical assistance and education programs will not only lead to increased opportunities for our constituents; they will also continue to open a window into the world of the service providers who spend their working days with these populations and the agencies who regulate and oversee them. Cumulatively, these on-the-ground efforts will continue to inform our policy advocacy, helping us first identify, and then work to reshape the laws, regulations and public policies that shape the lives of tens of millions of Americans.