Center for Justice responds to individuals, community
After 15 years in Seattle as a bankruptcy, consumer, debtor/creditor, foreclosure, real estate and tax attorney, Dainen Penta came to head the Center for Justice in Spokane in January 2019 to address the "sea of need" he met in those cases.
"I wanted to have impact on the bigger world as a 'community' lawyer to resolve community problems," he said. "Legal work should be led and informed by the community."
The Center for Justice both provides free legal services for people living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, or struggling with mental health or addiction, and advocates for changes in the criminal justice system.
"The pressing issue in Spokane and the U.S. is for criminal justice reform, which involves both helping people return to society after incarceration, and working for police and government accountability," Dainen said.
A 2013 state survey found that only one in 10 low-income people have help when they have legal problems.
"It's not just low-income people. Few realize there are legal components to problems they face, and a lawyer can help," he said. "We serve people from 0 to 400 percent of the poverty level."
In 1994, Dainen, the Korean-born son of a Longview attorney, first came to Spokane to study at Whitworth on recommendation of a friend in a non-denominational church he attended. While majoring in international studies and French, he studied for a semester in southern France.
Being open with friends at the Christian university about being gay, he valued the acceptance he experienced.
After graduating in 1997, Dainen worked with the Oregon Health Sciences University while applying to Lewis and Clark Law School. He graduated in 2001 and completed a master's in tax law in 2002 at the University of Washington.
He went home to Longview to work as a lawyer with his father, passed the bar exam and started to practice there.
In 2004, he moved to Seattle, where he had his own practice and worked with several small firms. Along with practicing bankruptcy law, foreclosure defense, defending people against debt collectors and protecting consumers, he did real estate work representing condominium and home-owner associations, often using mediation.
"I went to law school with the idea of helping people and doing good work to make a living," he said. "In work with the Center for Justice, I am in touch with my own humanity as I work with clients. I believe every individual is of infinite worth.
"Many people grow up in churches and the values are woven into their fabric. I see biblical leaders as humanitarians," he said. "A Franciscan friar taught me that 'the Divine in me is to recognize the Divine in you.'
"At the Center for Justice, we address imbalances with corporations and wealthy people having immense access to courts and lawyers. Too often it's about how much justice a person can afford. We want to level the playing field. If someone can't afford a lawyer, the impact may be permanent and damaging."
Dainen said the center's services and staff help people resolve housing disputes, restore their driver's licenses, clear their criminal records, reduce legal financial obligations and protect the Spokane River.
• The housing justice program holds legal clinics on landlord-tenant relations and tenants' right to safe, healthy, affordable housing.
Housing attorney Matthew Larsen serves about 60 people a week. He helps tenants avoid evictions and negotiates with landlords to resolve problems—like doing repairs to meet health and safety standards to avoid going to court.
• The relicensing program resolves unpaid tickets to end indefinite suspension of licenses for failure to pay traffic fines people can't afford.
"It's hard to live in Spokane without a driver's license," said Dainen. "People need to drive to go to work, pick up their children and shop for groceries. When people drive with a suspended license and are pulled over, they are ticketed for driving with a suspended license, compounding fines. Suspended licenses add to poverty, unemployment and incarceration."
For 10 years, Virla Spencer, a non-lawyer advocate, has worked with courts to set payments of $25 to $50 a month so people can have their licenses restored. She also helps drivers find insurance and understand what they need to do to keep their licenses. She serves more than 500 people a year.
Other groups around the U.S see this Center for Justice program as a model they want to replicate.
• The Smart Justice Coalition believes jail is an expensive, ineffective way to reduce crime and make the community safe, said Cam Zorrozua, who heads the Smart Justice and Criminal Justice Reform Programs. They work for a just, effective regional criminal justice system with alternatives to incarceration, including treatment and support services to break the cycle of crime, save money and meet victims' needs.
The center helps people erase—vacate or expunge—past convictions, and reduce legal financial obligations because laws let people overcome their past, Dainen said. "People are amazed that's possible after they have been prosecuted, convicted and served time. It opens doors to jobs and housing.
The Spokane City Council in 2017 and Washington state in 2018 passed ban-the-box laws, prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about past arrests or convictions until it's determined if the person is qualified. Employers and landlords would not first see a person's record.
"We keep an eye on police related to use of force and the number of people of color stopped and in jail," Dainen said. "African Americans are over-represented in jails compared to their proportion in Spokane's population."
The center also monitors disparities of discipline in public school students with disabilities and students of color.
"Use of force incidents are relatively few nationwide, but when they happen, we want the police department to be forthcoming about their use of force and policies," he said.
Dainen realizes that even when police and schools change policies, education is needed to change the culture and people's hearts.
He respects that police officers and first responders put their lives on the line every day as they encounter people struggling with mental health and addiction. He knows that many officers want accountability spelled out, so he urges the Police Guild to work with the Police Ombuds Office and participate in implicit bias training.
"Just because someone is a suspect or accused of a crime does not mean his/her rights go away," he said.
The center includes Spokane Riverkeeper, which protects the river's health through education, river cleanup and trash pickups, and advocacy to hold polluters and governments accountable.
"We pick up trash for homeless people camping by the river, going with representatives of SNAP and Frontier Behavioral Health to connect them to services.
Dainen told of two cases the Center for Justice recently litigated.
Representing homeless groups and nonprofits, it took the case of Camp Hope, the tent city on the sidewalk outside Spokane City Hall in December 2018. The Ninth Circuit Court in Boise had ruled if there were no shelters open, police could not tear down such camps.
"In that case, we ask the City of Spokane to be sensitive when clearing encampments," Dainan said. "Usually they pick up all personal belongings and throw them in a trash truck, as they did with Camp Hope. That practice raises issues about due process."
The second case challenged the city not to put Proposition 1 on the ballot. The measure said city employees or police were to ask people for their immigration or citizenship status, and report to immigration authorities.
The center won in Spokane Superior Court in 2017. The State Appeals Court ruled it was unjust and should be kept off the ballot. The State Supreme Court decided not to hear the case, upholding the appeals court.
"That underscores how courts are a check on illegal actions," Dainen said.
The center, unlike some nonprofits, accepts no federal and little or no state funding, so it is "free to respond to community needs quickly and can sue the government," said Dainen, whose role includes securing grants and donations.
In 1999, Jim Sheehan founded the Center for Justice to help people falling through the cracks. It began as legal services for those who could not afford an attorney. Many know it for challenging police in the 2006 fatal beating of Otto Zehm, bringing changes in police policy.
"Every day, we ask, 'What can we do to help make Spokane a better place?' We do not lose hope, because we know we help people and make aFebruary difference for the community," he said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2020