Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reflections from my summer with GJP - Jamal Hill - Part 1

Let me begin this essay by once again expressing my most sincere gratitude for your scholarship award for my work with the Georgia Justice Project this summer. GJP is located in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, right behind the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolence and Social Change, and the burial site of both Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. The mission of the Project is to help break the cycle of crime and poverty in the community by utilizing a holistic approach to assist the indigent criminally accused. I was fortunate enough to work with all three aspects of the organization: legal, social work, and the landscaping company.

Throughout the summer, my legal exposure was sort of a crash course into the world of indigent criminal defense. The staff attorneys at GJP zealously represent people from some of Atlanta’s poorest communities. I had the opportunity to go and visit potential clients in jail, and I even helped to decide whether the attorneys should take on a particular individual’s case. You might say that I served as a paralegal, as I did plenty of legal research. I also went to court several times, and witnessed an attorney provide counsel in a murder case. Before my experiences this summer, I was somewhat cynical and very unenlightened about the field of criminal defense. I thought it was all black and white; the defense attorney’s job is to get their client off no matter what. While this is true in most cases, I learned that indigent criminal defense is about giving the defendant a voice, helping them to make the best out of the mess they are in, and looking for the humanity inside of them. It’s about investing in people.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Talking about our experiences at GJP - this week : Forrest Graham

Starting this week we will run a series talking of your experience at GJP. This week's featured author is Forrest Graham

I never wanted to do defense work. You’ve no doubt heard the litany of common reasons – who wants to defend the guilty? Isn’t it even … slightly morally repugnant to do so? How do you sleep at night? … and of course, there’s no money in it. Despite these objections, or perhaps because of them, as a third year law student I decided to extern at GJP – a personal experiment to see what legal defense work was all about.

I immediately made two surprising observations: first, GJP was a family, not a firm and secondly, every family member was (contagiously) passionate about what they were doing. I jumped right in with the legal work. Under the guidance of several different attorneys, I screened/interviewed potential clients, conducted background research, reviewed legal strategy, visited clients in jail and went on information-gathering “field trips.”

In many ways Andrew’s case typifies my GJP experience. Andrew was accused of armed robbery - $100 dollars from a Dollar Store. Nothing glamorous – not much money, no deaths or injuries, no high speed police chase. Andrew lived with his mother and sister. He couldn’t afford a car and certainly couldn’t afford a defense attorney. I went with a GJP attorney to jail to interview Andrew; afterwards, we pored over witness statements and the police report, we listened to the 911 call repeatedly (I think I still have it memorized), we visited the crime scene, we spent hours discussing courtroom strategy and researching relevant case law and we went to the prosecutor’s office to talk plea bargain.

Andrew’s case typifies my GJP experience not so much because of the crime or the client but because Andrew received much more than effective assistance of counsel – the minimum of what the law requires – he received passionate, zealous representation. His representation mattered to him of course, but it should matter to all of us too – the quality of that representation is an accurate measure of how much we value Justice, and that’s really what criminal defense is all about.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Collateral Consequences

“After retirement from the active practice of law in 2003, I volunteered at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) and was involved with the representation of a group of clients who faced eviction from public housing because of their criminal records. After a collaborative effort of volunteer lawyers and staff from King & Spalding and GJP, with the support of the Casey Foundation, most of the lease terminations were suspended, preventing these individuals from becoming homeless. This work sparked an interest in the collateral consequences of arrests and convictions…This interest expanded into an awareness that civil barriers to reentry exist, not only for housing, but also in the areas of employment, state and federal benefits and even the right to vote.” From the forward to Collateral Consequences of Arrests and Convictions: Policy and Law in Georgia, written by volunteer lawyers H. Lane Dennard Jr. and Patrick C. DiCarlo. Click HERE to learn what GJP is already doing to help people contend with the aftermath of an arrest or conviction. Would you like a free copy of the book? Email Melissa@gjp.org

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Video Footage from Grass Roots Justice Awards 2009

Click here to see more footage of all of the award recipients.

Welcome to the Georgia Justice Project Blog!

Welcome to the Georgia Justice Project blog! If you’ve found your way here, you likely know something about GJP and our intensive work on behalf of those in our community who find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system. (If you’re new to GJP, please check the “about us” link on the left). We hope that this blog can give you a glimpse at some of the struggles and victories (small and large) that we face here in our office each day. We’ll offer stories about our interactions with clients – putting a human face on the sobering statistics about the criminal justice system. We’ll provide information about state and national policies that adversely impact those caught up in the justice system, and encourage you to get involved. Above all, we hope to start a broader conversation with you and harness the power of social networking to create real change in the lives of those we serve.

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