Libraries and the Justice System

Libraries and the Justice System

Libraries serve an instrumental role in the justice system. They perform many responsibilities that aid in research and preservation, protect civil rights, increase access to vulnerable populations, and improve operations of the justice system. A library’s work is never done when it comes to the legal needs of Americans.

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The library system is utilized by many for a wide array of purposes. Those in the community who are facing legal problems also turn to the library in times of crisis. The library helps fill the divide for civil legal needs of those in low-income communities. The 2017 Justice Gap Report showed that 71% of low-income households experienced civil-legal problems and 86% of those reported received little to no legal help. Public libraries improve access to resources and help close the justice gap by connecting community members to important legal aid. Law librarians have extensive knowledge and background to help patrons navigate the confusing territory of laws. Their understanding of the civil legal justice landscape positions them to be useful resources to those that need it.

There are a number of ways that libraries are closing the justice gap. They are providing additional access points to legal information and services to the public and support in navigating information. WebJunction, a learning place for libraries, created a course for public library staff on how to improve access to civil legal information. This is a grant-funded initiative that helps library staff identify civil legal issues and consists of multiple training dates, webinars, and course series to help strengthen the library system.

Libraries provide crucial services for the prison population. Not only do books serve as entertainment and help inmates pass the time, the knowledge that libraries provide can be extremely impactful to those in prison. Many inmates use their designated time as an opportunity to learn. Some focus on learning about law while others spend their time picking up new skills that will be beneficial to them once they re-enter civilian life. Prison libraries are important to reducing rates of recidivism because they provide inmates with tools they need to successfully transition back into society. From computer skills to basic literacy skills, the library systems in prisons are performing important services to these individuals. There are many organizations in the country that help supplement the materials that prison libraries have on hand to serve their patrons. Books to Prisoners and Books to Bars are just a few examples of hardworking nonprofit organizations that are committed to helping libraries connect their populations to knowledge and tools. These location based organizations are critical for maintaining a constant and modern supply of books into prison libraries.

Library institutions also play an important role with helping inmates stay connected with family. It has been shown that maintaining positive relationships with family and friends is an important factor in decreasing reentry into the prison system. Librarian Nick Higgins and his staff serve prisoners on Rikers Island in New York. They have created programs that help prisoners stay involved with their families. They Daddy and Me/Mommy and Me reading program allows inmates to record themselves reading stories to their family members. They also created TeleStory which facilitates virtual visits between inmates and their families. This way they were able to read, sing, and chat with their loved ones. For more information about library services to the incarcerated and detained, visit the American Library Association’s resource list.

Libraries do many things to contribute to the justice system. These locations are staffed with experts that are able to guide the public through legal problems that come up and provide crucial resources and connections to low-income communities. In addition to the work they do for their community when it comes to access and research, they also play critical roles in the lives of the incarcerated and their families. With the aid of public libraries, many inmates are able to successfully find jobs, stay connected with their families, and reacclimate to society.