As director of KLS, Marilyn Harp helped thousands get legal help and increased both paid and volunteer staff

For 43 years, Kansas Legal Services Director Marilyn Harp has been a familiar face for people in poverty facing legal issues. This month, she’ll retire. 

But she won’t stop working.

“I’m looking forward to becoming a citizen lobbyist at the State Legislature, fighting for changes in the law that I think need to be made to make the justice system just for everybody,” she said.

She’s already had some experience at that in her leadership role at KLS.

In 2018, her efforts were instrumental in getting the law amended to allow attorneys practicing in Kansas under a restricted license to volunteer with KLS. 

Restricted license allows an attorney licensed in another state but not in Kansas to provide legal services to a Kansas company. But it prohibited that attorney from working for anyone except his employer.

That concerned Sean Tarantino, an attorney at Koch Industries who is licensed in Illinois, but not in Kansas.

Before coming to Wichita, Tarantino had been active in offering pro bono (free) legal services for people who couldn’t afford a lawyer, including people seeking to expunge a criminal record that prevented them from getting a job, renting a home or a host of other things.

“I’ve always felt that it’s so unfair that someone who made a mistake 20 years ago has a life sentence of unemployment or marginal employment,” he said. “I really wanted to continue the work in Wichita and the head of our legal department wanted us to be able to do it too.”

With Harp’s help, the law was amended in September of 2018 and Harp helped Koch launch its expungement program.

Fast growth shows huge need

The program has grown rapidly.  Koch Legal now has 30 attorneys in the program and they have expunged 157 cases since 2018.

Harp said it is important for people to understand what expungement does, and more important, what it doesn’t do.

Expungement removes an arrest or conviction from the public record. It does not mean that record is erased. It simply is shielded from showing up on a standard background check. 

But that shield can be life changing. Many employers deny a job to those with a felony conviction on their record. Landlords can refuse to rent to them, they can’t travel freely, obtain federal student aid, qualify for low-income housing or even do many volunteer jobs. 

Harp said expungements are the most-sought services at Kansas Legal Services, but they also have a large client base seeking help with getting drivers licenses restored.

Those who lose their license to drive are overwhelmingly poor people. 

“It often starts with a bill they couldn’t pay, such as insurance or a traffic violation fine. Then they get stopped and there’s a warrant for the fine and they get taken to jail. If they have no insurance, that generates a ticket and a fine – often a fine that they can’t pay. It just snowballs and eventually their license is revoked,” she said.

Kansas Legal Services does not handle criminal cases. For people charged with crimes but unable to pay for a lawyer a public defender can be appointed by the court. KLS handles civil cases, like landlord-tenant disputes, divorce, child custody, child support collection, wage garnishments and a host of other issues.

Access to justice is not just

Statistics show that low income people cannot afford legal help for 97% of the problems they may face. 

“One thing the justice system doesn’t take into account in setting fines is the income of the defendant. It’s just ‘this ticket is $100 or $200. For some people that is 0.1% of their monthly income. For others it’s 25% or 30%. That’s something that ought to change.”

Harp says she’s proud to have spent her working life in an organization that helps those people cope. She started her career in 1979 in Wichita after the city provided money for KLS to set up volunteer lawyers to work in neighborhood centers at Orchard Park, Evergreen and McAdams to connect people to resources.

“That got me started and I never left,” she said. “I was managing attorney in Wichita until 2006 when I became State Director.”

As State Director she created a way for people to call or go online to apply for help. She said the call center handles about 36,000 calls a year and connects people to legal resources.

Marilyn said it has been rewarding work and she is especially proud of being able to increase the staffing available to help by getting the restricted license law revised.