The first morning of my internship the butterflies started to flutter, a thousand thoughts ran through my head, and all I could think of was how many people I could help while I was there last summer. I will never forget that first day at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) in Atlanta. The amount of heart and soul that the employees put into their clients was incredible, and that’s when I knew I was in the right place. The Georgia Justice Project, a non-profit law firm, defends individuals who are unable to afford an attorney. GJP takes on pending criminal cases. The attorneys at GJP also aid in removing old charges from individuals’ records. If I learned one thing this summer, it was that a person’s criminal background can affect his or her life forever. I also learned that it was impossible to help every person with whom I came in contact, and I then took a different approach. My goal for the summer was to impact someone’s life positively.
During my first week, I met a client who had been with GJP for a year. She had a pending case, which had taken a lot longer to handle in court than usual. Ms. Lindenburg (a pseudonym) had charges that turned her life upside down. They caused her to lose her job, which made it extremely difficult to pay her monthly bills. On top of all this stress, her health took an unsettling turn during the time she was working with our social worker and attorney. She had so many stressors at once, she started to give up. Once the trial started, we could tell that life was bring her down. During one court recess, we went outside for some lunch. Ms. Lindenburg was upset and not acting normally. I decided to have a conversation with her. We spoke about how when the trial ends we were going to make sure her life gets back to as normal as possible and we would continue working with her until she became satisfied. I reassured Ms. Lindenburg that we were going to stick by her side through it all. I knew that she had no support system, so I emphasized that we would be there for anything she needs. Some may wonder how GJP is different from a public defender’s office. At GJP, the goal is to provide holistic representation that also includes job readiness and résumé building. No other agency in the Atlanta area provides this support while also preparing for trial and ensuring that the client is linked with the social worker.
After that conversation, Ms. Lindenburg was more relaxed and confident. It made a difference that we would be standing by her every step of the way. When I saw the relief on her face after we had the conversation, I knew I had made an impact. Even small gestures such as having a meaningful conversation, can change a client’s attitude and help her stay positive. That conversation with Ms. Lindenburg met my goal of impacting someone’s life, and that was the most rewarding feeling of my summer. My time at GJP taught me so much about holistic defense. Having clients that can trust their attorney and support systems shows that GJP leads the way in holistic defense for people in Atlanta.
Experiencing criminal justice in Atlanta, Georgia, has opened my eyes to many more social and economic issues within our country. Many of the individuals who came in for our services were unemployed, and the main reason was because of their criminal record. I spoke to people daily about the unfair treatment people with criminal records go through. I have also learned that going through the process to clean up a person’s record is a job within itself. The criminal justice system sets up persons to fail, and lack of criminal justice reform in our society leaves much room for significant reform to effect greater justice. Those unaware of the barriers of a criminal record have no idea how it forecloses opportunity. Being unemployed, not having stable housing, losing support systems, and living in poverty are just a few obstacles individuals with a criminal record experience.
The Georgia Justice Project is changing the way people are represented. Providing a holistic approach throughout their trail can help the client long term. All of the clients at GJP are clients for life. Even after their case is closed, they remain welcome with open arms.
What I learned this summer and my courses in school, give me a better understanding of what I can do to help oppressed individuals. I want to be able to empower persons who may have given up and strengthen their neighborhoods where poverty is rampant. My experience at the Georgia Justice Project has forever changed my outlook on life. I cannot wait to go back and visit one day—or maybe even become a social worker with GJP.