August 2015

Jax Gitzes Development Associate, Pro Bono Net
Jax Gitzes
Development Associate, Pro Bono Net

In July, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar called “Mental Health Issues & the New York States Courts 2015: Understanding Risk,” offered by the Practising Law Institute (PLI), a nonprofit continuing legal education and professional business training organization. PLI is bronze sponsor of Pro Bono Net’s work and Pro Bono Net is pleased to promote PLI’s efforts to provide pro bono training for the access to justice community, reflecting its deep commitment to the public service work of the legal profession.

The New York State courts utilize various risk assessment tools to determine the appropriate level of services, supervision and treatment that should be provided to those with mental health issues that find themselves in the justice system. PLI’s seminar in July addressed these risk assessments and their integration into the justice system of New York.

The percentage of people in state prisons and local jails that meet the criteria for severe mental illness is almost triple that of the general population. Without proper treatment, many are leaving incarceration much worse off than when they started. For many years policymakers and practitioners have sought ways to expand options, treatment, and alternatives to traditional incarceration to give people a solid chance at rebuilding their lives.

The underlying assumption behind many of these strategies is that the primary reason mentally ill persons became embroiled in the criminal justice system is a lack of treatment for their illness. While new strategies and programs have decreased recidivism and assisted the mentally ill as they reintegrate into society, recent studies show that the base-line assumption is incorrect.

In 2010, studies found no direct correlation between the mental health of a person and their rate of recidivism after going through one of the alternative programs. What they found was that while treatment was helpful and necessary, mental illness was not the primary cause of recidivism or criminal activity. While mental illness is a contributing factor, the attributes involved in determining the risk of recidivism for mentally ill persons are actually the same as those for non-mentally ill persons. The risk factors include a history of antisocial behavior, antisocial personality pattern, antisocial thoughts and attitudes, antisocial associates, family or relationship instability, poor performance at work or school, few leisure or recreational activities, and substance abuse.

Armed with this new information, many policy makers and advocates are supporting a new model that focuses on a consideration of mental health, substance abuse and criminogenic risk factors to determine the correct level of supervision and services for offenders with behavioral health needs. This intersection between accountability and treatment is a difficult rope to walk. There are so many variables at play that each case needs to be evaluated and a decision made bearing in mind as many factors as possible.  PLI’s seminar addressed the risk assessment mechanisms used by the New York courts system to address this need.

The morning panels were devoted to exploring two different types of risk and how they relate to mental illness. The first session focused on the relationship between violence and mental illness, examining the current research, tools used for assessment and legal standards the New York courts use to assess dangerousness. Assessment tools are used to determine the likelihood that the offender will engage in violent acts against himself or others. If there is a risk of violence the courts have the ability to reduce or remove that risk through the services developed in addition to, or as an alternative to, incarceration.

The second session focused on the risks of criminal behavior and activities, the risk-needs-responsivity model, and a new framework for integrating the risk-needs-responsivity model with behavioral health needs. The risk-needs-responsivity model is a framework developed in the 1980’s to ensure that the level of supervision matches the offender’s risk of reoffending (risk), that type treatment and assistance provided matches the offender’s mental and physical health needs based on specific risk factors (needs), and that the level of treatment and assistance provided matches the level the offender will positively respond to (responsivity). This system is used in the New York State courts to assess the services and supervision the system should provide to an offender in order to rehabilitate the offender.

The first afternoon session was made up of four presentations examining examples of how risk assessments are used in NY. The first focused on the risk of failing to appear in court, including a discussion of the research behind bail recommendations in courts and a pilot program for supervised release of defendants who would otherwise be detained while awaiting their trial. The second addressed recommendations of the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System that assess the risk of reoffending and/or a failure to appear in court. The third examined a new program that assesses the risk of failure to appear in court and/or reoffending in order to identify eligible pretrial detainees at Rikers Island. The last described how risk and needs assessments are used to determine probation supervision levels.

The last session of the day looked at the ethical and policy considerations involved in using risk assessments in the court systems. Topics included a consideration for mental health professionals and lawyers on determining whether to break confidentiality when a client presents a risk of committing a violent or criminal act, as well as the differences in standards of professional responsibility for lawyers and mental health professionals in representing or treating an offender with mental illness. Ethical issues for prosecutors in cases involving defendants with mental illnesses, and concerns in regards to applying risk assessments created as an evaluation of probabilities across a wide range of people to an individual, were also major topics.

The morning sessions’ panels included Melissa Lee Mazzitelli, Esq., Virginia Barber Rioja, Ph.D., Joyce Kendrick, Esq., and Merrill Rotter, MD, and was moderated by Carol Fisler, Esq.. The first afternoon session panel was comprised of Sharun Goodwin-Jones, Trish Marsik, Jerome E. McElroy, and John Volpe. The final panel included Julian Adler, Esq., David Kelly, Esq., and Merrill Rotter, MD. The afternoon session panels were moderated by Colleen King, Esq., and Margaret Martin Esq. respectively.

The PLI seminars are comprehensive and informative, focusing on the latest research and contributions from the most experienced names in the field. Many are eligible for CLE credit.



Practising Law InstituteThis seminar/webcast was hosted by the Practising Law Institute. To register for any webcasts or seminars go to for more information.

At the core of Practising Law Institute’s mission is its commitment to offer training to members of the legal profession to support their pro bono service. PLI offers pro bono training, scholarships, and access to live programs, Webcasts, and On-Demand archived programs, as well as an extensive Pro Bono Membership program. For more information about PLI’s pro bono programs and activities, please visit Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @ProBonoPLI.

Pro Bono To Go - Checklist Options
Pro Bono To Go – Checklist Options

Volunteer attorneys, paralegals and law students routinely work in field settings such as clinics, courthouses or community legal education events. Providing comprehensive support to legal volunteers in these settings can be challenging, but the ubiquity of mobile devices and tablets makes them ideal vehicles for supporting pro bono in these contexts. In Minnesota, Legal Aid Services of Northeastern Minnesota, Legal Services State Support and the State Bar of Minnesota worked with Pro Bono Net to create new solutions for legal professionals on the go.

Pro Bono to Go” is a mobile-optimized library of Interview Guides and Settlement Checklists designed for pro bono attorneys. The resources are available through, Minnesota’s statewide advocate site. Interview Guides contain questions that help attorneys and legal service providers navigate a client interview on a selected topic. Settlement Checklists include issues likely to be relevant to a settlement within the selected topic. While these guides and checklists will not cover every situation, the attorneys and legal service providers can adapt to the client’s situation using these resources as a road map.

Pro Bono To Go - Housing Law: Eviction Settlement Checklist
Pro Bono To Go – Housing Law: Eviction Settlement Checklist

The Interview Guides are intended to help gather important information from clients. Each guide contains a series of model questions to solicit information likely to be relevant to the topic area. The Settlement Checklists can help volunteers assist clients in reaching comprehensive settlements with adverse parties. Each checklist contains issues that should be discussed with the client, and issues to consider addressing in the client’s agreement.

By constructing a series of mobile-optimized client interview guides and settlement checklists to help volunteer attorneys and legal service advocates, ProJusticeMN and Pro Bono Net have given practitioners a powerful new tool as omnipresent as their smartphones. With so much information literally at their fingertips, attorneys and legal service providers are better able to serve those unable to afford paid legal services. is a unique collaboration of the Minnesota public interest legal community. The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, Minnesota State Bar Association, Legal Services Advocacy Project, and the federal Legal Services Corporation worked together to develop

Each year, thousands of individuals facing domestic violence in New York seek to protect themselves from abuse with an order of protection. Last month, ALM’s Legaltech News recognized The New York State Unified Court System with an LTN innovation award for the Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project for the Advocate Family Offense Petition Project.  On Tuesday, Pro Bono Net and LegalTech News presented the award to the New York Courts.

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Pictured: L-R: Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien, Honorable Fern A. Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts and Director the NYS Courts Access to Justice Program; and Erin Harrison, Editor in Chief at Legaltech News.

The project reduces barriers for individuals seeking protection from abuse. By leveraging Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive online document assembly solution, the project allows advocates across the state to complete and electronically file petitions for litigants from any location, including from trusted domestic violence agencies and shelters. Since the program’s launch in 2014, more than 8,000 petitions have been filed using this program in 45 of NY’s 62 counties. The project streamlines the procedures for petitioners seeking protection orders, making the process less stressful for litigants. Pro Bono Net nominated the NY Courts for this honor, believing they should be applauded for implementing technology  which makes the justice system more accessible  for unrepresented litigants who are seeking critical support under the most difficult of circumstances.

“It’s been a real privilege for Pro Bono Net to be a part of that journey and evolution in the way the court has thought about providing services and equipping its staff and partnering organizations to be able to do the hard work that they’re charged with every day,” said Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director Mark O’Brien at the ceremony.

During her speech on Tuesday, the Honorable Fern A. Fisher acknowledged the collaborative effort it took to get to the end of this journey, saying that it took a lot of hands to make this happen. Collaborators included Pro Bono Net, the New York Court’s Access to Justice Program, NYC Family Court, the Court’s Division of Technology, and the Center for Court Innovation and domestic violence advocacy groups. At the end of her speech, Judge Fisher acknowledged that though this a huge feat, it’s not the end of the battle, and added that she hopes to see statistics on domestic violence reduced in her lifetime.

Honorable Fern A. Fisher (pictured center) with the 2015 LTN Innovation Award for Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project. LTN presented the award to the courts at a ceremony at the Courthouse yesterday. Pictured with Judge Fisher are from Left to Right: Mike McLoughlin, First Deputy Chief Clerk, Family Court Administration, City of New York; Mark O’Brien; Erin Harrison; Chip Mount, Director of Research and Technology at New York State Unified Court System; Mike Williams, Clerk of Court, Bronx Family Court.

The project leverages LawHelp Interactive (LHI), a national online document assembly service that provides support to access to justice initiatives by legal services, court, pro bono, and law school programs in more than 40 states. LHI is operated by Pro Bono Net, in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services, and together they have received generous support for this work from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation.


The UnUCRCaccompanied Children Resource Center launched in early 2015 as a joint project of the Immigration Advocates Network and the American Bar Association. The new website responds to the crisis of unaccompanied immigrant minors in immigration court proceedings. They are leaving their homes for many reasons: to escape abuse, discrimination, gender-based violence, poverty, trafficking, or other desperate situations. Some may qualify to stay in the United States, but the laws and processes are complicated. In FY 2014 almost 70,000 children from Mexico and Central America crossed the United States’ southern border; a 77% increase from the previous year. Many of these immigrant minors do not have access to a lawyer, and the government is not mandated to provide one. Many children—toddlers through teenagers—arrive at court alone, and insufficient knowledge of their legal options is a barrier that often leads to deportation.

The site shares trusted legal information and referrals with advocates, children, and their guardians. Features include a legal directory where children can search for organizations providing pro bono services, as well as a number of plain-language Spanish and English documents on what to expect in immigration court, how to work with a lawyer, how to enroll in school, and more. The site also serves as a resource for lawyers new to immigration court; lawyers can access practice advisories and manuals and connect with organizations to volunteer with children.

The process by which unaccompanied children access services in the U.S. differs across city and immigration court jurisdiction. In Minnesota, volunteer attorneys coordinated by three major service providers gather at the Fort Snelling Court on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for case screening interviews for the unaccompanied children’s docket. In the coming months, the UAC site will expand information about collaborative efforts, such as this one, to explain how children access services in different cities and how volunteers can join the effort.

Visit the site at

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