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.

The Justice Project’s social workers provide individual case management to each of the legal clients, which includes prison visitation, job search assistance, and G.E.D. tutoring. My most edifying social work experiences were accompanying the social workers on visits to transitional houses and youth detention centers where some of the clients are held. I must admit, I had to get over my initial anxiety; I was going to be meeting face to face with people who had actually killed someone. I met a fifteen year old who was in a youth detention facility for accidentally shooting and killing his best friend while playing with a gun. I met another client who is now in a transitional house after spending seven years in prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge. I even met the Justice Project’s very first client, who is now in a transitional house after spending twenty-four years in prison for a murder he committed.

By listening to all of these individuals, I got a sense of what their life inside the criminal justice system is like. They referred to the dreadful food, the stringent rules and regulations, and the overall lack of autonomy. All of them had come to accept what they had done, and were ready to move their lives in a positive direction. The two clients in the transitional houses were exuberant about being so close to obtaining real freedom, and they possessed a strong desire to find work. Once they found work, they would be completely free. The fifteen year old will be housed in a youth detention center until he is twenty-one. He is studying hard so that he can earn a high school diploma there, and be ready to make something of himself when he comes out. The lesson I learned was the importance of communicating with clients, even in prison. There needs to be someone there who understands who the clients are and is willing to listen to their life story; this is the way to help them rebuild their lives, free from criminal activity.

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