Emma reveals the human side of criminal law and how law can be incorporated with social services.
Emma and friends with Rev. Ralphael Warknock at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Willie was all smiles – not something one would necessarily expect from a man sentenced to life in prison. Doug, the Executive Director at the Georgia Justice Project, was smiling too; their smiles must have been infectious, because I found myself smiling as well. After I watched Doug and Willie embrace, I shook Willie’s hand and we all sat down around a table in a small visitor room at the Central State Prison in Macon, Georgia. Doug and I had travelled about 85 miles, an hour and twenty minutes, to sit and talk with Willie, who has served 25 years of his life sentence. Doug and Willie had not seen one another in many years, so there was much catching up to do. The two spoke about how long it had been since they last spoke, talked about their families, Willie’s case and parole, among other topics. The entire time, Willie smiled. He was hopeful about his future despite the fact that it may be played out within a penitentiary; he shared with us his desire to help open an educational daycare center for the children of drug-dependent individuals. He explained that when he entered the system, he had an eighth grade reading level and now has completed his GED and taken all the college courses available to him. He leads and teaches Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings through his work placement at the Counseling Center. To Willie, prison was not exactly prison – it was his opportunity to change himself and he said it felt “more like college than prison.”
He told us that he owes his positive outlook and self-assurance to Doug and the other workers at the Georgia Justice Project because they believed in him and made him feel like a dignified human being. The Georgia Justice Project was able to help restore Willie’s self-worth not only by agreeing to represent him legally, but also by being there for him through prison visitations, writing letters, providing support for his family, and advocating for his needs. Seemingly simple gestures that go beyond the typical attorney-client relationship are truly able to change a client’s life course.
Willie is truly a star pupil of the Georgia Justice Project, demonstrating what good can come of even one of the worst possible legal outcomes. His story shows how attorneys and agencies that practice restorative justice, going above and beyond legal obligations, can help foster positive life changes and attitudinal shifts. Such drastic changes can be elicited even from a man whose case was unable to be won and who will spend the majority, if not all, of the rest of his life incarcerated. Imagine what this organization, the Georgia Justice Project, and the unlikely mix of lawyers and social workers who make up the family within, is able to do for clients who do not receive a life sentence. I won’t leave it to your imagination, I will tell you what the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) aims to accomplish and some of the ways in which I have seen these goals realized.
The organization’s mission statement is straightforward: “We defend people accused of crimes and, win or lose, we stand with our clients while they rebuild their lives. We believe this is the only way to break the cycle of crime and poverty.” Sounds simple, right? Though easily understood, the ways in which GJP goes about reaching this goal are multifaceted. GJP provides thorough, personal, quality criminal defense representation to indigent clients accused of crimes. GJP is able to accept only selected cases due to its small legal staff. It accepts clients who are ready and willing to make serious commitments to personally transforming themselves, and this is determined by a social service assessment following the legal assessment. Social service meetings are necessary to determine and address the clients’ strengths, needs, and goals in order to create a personalized treatment program. This relationship-driven interworking between the lawyers, social workers, and clients allows GJP to have the best understanding of a client’s legal, social, emotional, and mental health background, which helps them to best serve the client. The GJP staff hopes that the product of these meetings, a personal treatment program, will help clients avoid a prison sentence or unnecessarily harsh sentencing when presented to the judge.
Because the cycle of poverty is exacerbated and often caused by crime, incarceration, criminal records, and unemployment, GJP seeks to keep clients out of incarceration whenever possible and help them become productive citizens in the community. Social workers provide court-mandated anger management training, individual and family counseling, and cash assistance and prison visitation transportation for families. Social workers also help clients obtain employment through Work Matters programming, which includes resume, application, and job interview assistance. GJP offers a JobView kiosk to facilitate the initial job search by narrowing down searches by employment field, educational requirements, etc.
For clients who struggle to find employment or housing due to their criminal record, GJP has a Coming Home Program, aids clients with expunging criminal records and restricting eligible charges. This service helps the accused and convicted to get on with their lives and avoid paying for a crime for the rest of their lives. A criminal record often bars persons from employment. Hence, GJP plays a role in reducing unemployment and stimulating the economy.
GJP’s distinctive comprehensive social services meet a client’s immediate with personal treatment programs and aim to create a sense of community among clients and their families. The Social Services program hosts two family events each year: an annual Christmas Party and Back-2-School. Families enjoy a formal dinner and receive gifts from Santa himself at the Christmas Party. I was able to help plan and attend the Back-2-School event during my internship.
The warm July day was full of games, crafts, music, food, and – most importantly – backpacks stuffed with school supplies, which GJP provides for the children and families of its clients. The community center gym in which this event is held was charged with energy and filled with staff, volunteers, children, clients from years ago, long-time friends of the organization, current clients, and families of incarcerated individuals. I had so much fun and was able to make personal connections by working at the registration table, playing in the Bouncy House, and handing out books to children as they exited. I did not anticipate the sense of satisfaction and inclusion I would have following the event – I felt like more than just an intern, I truly felt as though I was a member of the community. I was told many times that Back-2-School would be impossible without the help of summer interns, so I also felt as though my seemingly small role was a vital asset to GJP.
I left the gym after the event, and the office at the end of my internship, with an overwhelming feeling of being a part of the GJP family. That, in short, describes what GJP is all about. It connects and supports individuals on a personal level, whether it be giving a little girl a backpack and helping her pick out a new book, or visiting Willie in prison just to let him know that he is in someone’s thoughts. GJP refuses to define individuals solely by the crimes they have committed and cares for them despite their mistakes. It gives opportunity and hope to those who have few other places in which to seek them.
Throughout the summer, I came to realize that few organizations exist which successfully work toward the same goals as GJP; it is a distinctive and unique organization in just one major city of a nation containing millions of individuals caught up in some facet of the criminal justice system. There are a few ways in which the approach and tremendous success of GJP could be made available to other accused and convicted persons across the nation who seek aid with their legal status. One of these ways would be to create more non-profits that follow the same legal/social work model of GJP. This approach, however, would cost a great deal of both time and money – two things that legal non-profits often lack. Since GJP takes select cases, individuals in need of aid would continue to be denied at a higher rate than those who are accepted. This approach does not address the core issue at hand, but continues to deal with damages already inflicted.
In order to reduce the number of individuals who need services, I believe the only way to go about effectively fixing the criminal justice system is to change it on a national level. This would mean coming to terms with a number of sensitive issues surrounding race, poverty, and crime. It would also mean ending the decades long “War on Drugs” and re-thinking the “tough-on-crime” mentality. If we do not address these sensitive issues in a national conversation, there can be no hope for ending the remarkable cycle of crime and poverty that so deeply afflicts individuals, families, communities, and ultimately our nation as a whole.