We have friends and clients from all walks of life and are always trying to help better our community. When the COVID-19 Pandemic struck Pennsylvania we naturally sought out ways to help.
We quickly identified that the prison population would be at significant risk to the close quarters in which they are housed. Not only would this place the inmates at risk but it would also place the over 400 corrections officers in Northampton County at risk along with their families and the greater community.
We were also aware that health care workers and first responders would be at great risk of contracting the COVID-19 and their jobs would be hard enough without having to worry about how their affairs would be managed if they had to quarantine, ventilate or, even worse, pass away. Additionally, with ventilators in limited supply, there was a also a real danger that individuals may not have access to ventilators. Meanwhile ventilators might end up being utilized by other individuals who did not want artificial life preservation used but had no living will or DNR.
We set out to make sure could help make a difference.
Emergencies are Times for Compassion and Quick Responses, Not Profit
We were presented with the first challenge that Governor Wolf had ordered attorneys not to work. Luckily that problems was solved quite quickly as only the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can regulate attorneys.
We knew we could help society at large by helping free space in the Northampton County Prison and also by providing Powers of Attorney, Living Wills and DNRs to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But we could not do both at once.
Experience tells us that people love free things, so we knew right away that both of these programs would have to be free.
In an emergency we could not do both things simultaneously, we had to figure out which problem to tackle first and how to address both problems in the most effective and efficient way possible.
While we have a number of Law Enforcement clients due to our expertise in firearm rights and health care professionals due to our employment law practice, our criminal defense practice dwarfs all but our family law practice.
One might think we would have started with our Prisoner Relief efforts but we instead chose to move forwards with helping our first responders for a few reasons.
First, the prison was a captive population, no pun intended. While a prison outbreak of the virus would spread quickly, it was likely that the virus would not reach the prison until well after the general population was infected. Secondly, the prison population is generally younger than the general population and would fair better if infected. Finally, we want to assure that any prisoners we assisted in being released would not be released into a broken healthcare and law enforcement system.
But no matter which we did first, neither would make a difference if we couldn’t implement them on a massive scale.
As attorneys, the heart of our business is meeting with clients. But this would be different. First, we could not meet with clients because of the general stay at home orders and social distancing. Secondly, we could not meet with clients because time required to speak with them, even over the phone in this case, was a valuable asset that could be better spent performing document preparation or attending court hearings via video.
We needed a way to inform the general public of the free services we were offering but also to gather the information needed to complete our work for them.
We were well aware of certain online supposed law practices that offered document preparation for a fee. We took a page from their book and developed our online tools but waived the fee.
We then took out a few hundred dollars worth of advertisement space, locally, on facebook to make the public aware of our free program.
We developed two online tools to assist us in providing Power of Attorney & Living Wills. Our first tool would pre-screen applicants to assure that they were healthcare workers or first responders by requiring them to upload an ID. If an applicant passed our pre-screening they would then be directed to our second tool which collected all the information needed to complete their documents with no added frills.
The information we collected was then automatically added to an excel spreadsheet. The information from the excel spreadsheet was then linked a modified Microsoft word template using mail merge.
What would normally take us at least 2 hours, between meeting with clients and drafting the documents, could now be accomplished in mere minutes. As the kinks were worked out of our systems by preparing documents for healthcare workers and first responders, we were eventually able to open our program up to anyone over the age of 60.
It wasn’t pretty, we weren’t building any relationship with clients and we were offering only bare bone services. But, we would like to think that it helped make a difference.
Like our document preparation program, we also developed an online tool where the community could submit the names of family members and loved ones who were incarcerated in Northampton County Prison. We worked together with Prison Officials, the District Attorney, and Probation to identify whom each would consider good candidates for emergency relief. (Some were more cooperative than others)
Through a series of questions were able to have our system screen out the prisoner most in need of relief an whom we had the highest chances of helping to be released. The remaining names would be set aside and we would come back to them later. After out system generated the names of individuals whom we were likely to be able to assist, we would individually review their case and yet some more names would be set aside.
We first petitioned the court to release individuals being held on pretrial bail and were successful in doing so. We next moved on to helping prisoners who were being held on detainers. (Those who were being held on probation or parole violations). Finally, we were able to successfully achieve the release of individuals whom were already serving a prison sentence but were incarcerated for low level, non violent crimes.
Through our free programs we were able to provide legal documents to the community on a massive scale during the emergency. We also able to secure the release of a number of inmates without charge. We’re not sure whether our programs saved any lives but we are hopeful that it at least allows many to sleep better at night.