by Jacob Oldaker
In 2016, the Widener Law Journal – Economics and Race held the 9th annual Diversity Forum. The Focus of the Forum was on “Justice: Healing for the Past; Opportunity in the Future” which centers around changes in the judicial process that can lead to the betterment of future generations. A key-note guest speaker visiting Widener for the discussion was Doug Ammar who is the Executive Director for the Georgia Justice Project (GJP). The GJP is one of many, established programs that work to assist in proper representation in the criminal justice system to in turn reduce the rates of reentry into the prison system.
The Georgia Justice Project strengthens the community of Atlanta, Georgia, by offering better ways to represent and support individuals in the criminal justice system and to reduce recidivism rates. Georgia Justice Project, About GJP, http://www.gjp.org/about/, (last visited Mar. 18, 2018). There are many practices and tools that have been used to attempt to reduce recidivism in the United States but they need to be narrowly tailored to the demographic the organization is assisting. The GJP specifically promotes innovative change through direct legal representation, policy advocacy, education and coalition building. Id. They have improved their practices over the past thirty years and have found a niche that has developed a personal identity between themselves and the people of Georgia. So, now the question becomes, how can a “another” recidivism effort be unique? The GJP has pioneered a unique approach that combines legal and social services, along with employment support, to the neediest people who commonly become the poor people accused of committing crimes. Id. As Martin Luther said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Id. The GJP serves the lowest-wealth members of the community who are also at the highest risk for criminal involvement. The demographic they serve consists of clients between the ages of 14 and 58 – with more than half between the ages of 17 and 25, most being male residing in the city of Atlanta. Id. The GJP has discovered the most relevant demographic that needs assistance but that is only step one in solving the problem.
Specific services and outlets need to be provided to these people and GJP offers specific services based on their clientele needs. The GJP has determined a strong correlation between unemployment, poverty and crime. Id. According to their research:
- 90% of those in the criminal justice system live below the poverty line.
- Nearly 600,000 inmates arrive annually on the doorsteps of communities nationwide with virtually no system to help integrate them.
- The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
- The racial disparities of who is incarcerated are profound. 39% of the US prison population is African-American (but only 12.9% of the US population).
- We do our work in the area of the country where the need is greatest: The South has the highest incarceration rate in the US and in Georgia, 61.6% of the prison population is African-American (they make up 31.5% of the state’s population)
Do to these profound statistics, GJP offers opportunity for social impact through programs that overcome criminal barriers to economic stability. Id. These programs focus on criminal defense assistance, criminal records maintenance, mitigation of collateral consequences, and an overall systematic change. Id. Each program will influence the legal practice by minimizing the impact of criminal records and providing adequate services to the indigent population. As future members of the legal community we need to remember the importance of advocacy for the underrepresented members of out community because each person affected by the criminal justice system is our responsibility as attorneys.