Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Transformative Criminal Defense Practice: Truth, Love, and Individual Rights - the Innovative Approach of the Georgia Justice Project

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Transformative Criminal Defense Practice: Truth, Love, and Individual Rights - the Innovative Approach of the Georgia Justice Project

Article excerpt

"A (client's) relationship with the Georgia Justice Project is a relationship for life. You are like one big family. You are creating pockets of ... the Beloved Community." (1)

I. BEN'S WEDDING

In the last month, I have been to three different weddings. The marriage ceremonies were for a co-worker, an old community-organizer friend, and a Georgia Justice Project ("GJP") client named Ben. All of the weddings were incredible. But it was the last one, our client Ben's wedding, that got me thinking.

Ben was married last month. Most of the GJP staff was there. We have worked with Ben for over ten years. Five years in prison and five years out of prison. He was imprisoned after being convicted of armed robbery. He was sixteen-years old and, quite unfortunately, he grew up in prison. We were with him throughout his case. We visited him during his mandatory five-year term in prison. He started working for GJP's in-house business (New Horizon Landscaping) within a week of being released from prison.

I would like to say that the past five years, since his release from prison, have been smooth sailing for Ben. But they have not. Going to prison. Growing up in prison. Having a serious felony on his record. Struggling with addiction. And just plain trying to make it in the free world. We have ridden the roller coaster with Ben. From successes to frustration and then back again. There were many people at the wedding who have been part of Ben's success: counselors, rote models, sponsors, and co-workers, in addition to friends and family.

At his wedding, ten years after interviewing a scared kid in jail, I felt nothing but pride. He is married the mother of his children and he is in the best place I have seen him in years. He successfully completed a drug treatment program. He enrolled in a local community college. And he has been a dependable part of our landscaping company; a job he left a few times only to find it much harder than he thought out there in the regular world of the free-market economy.

Seeing Ben, someone in whom we have invested so much, step into another phase of adulthood, of responsibility, was a blessing. For me, and many of our staff, Ben's wedding was a celebration of our work with him. Ten years of investment. Now, in the company of so many who have touched each other, it had become a community. That is what I saw when I looked around the rented hall. As Ben's grandfather performed the ceremony and about one hundred or so friends and family gathered around, I saw a community. I saw the lines blur between lawyer and client, employer and employee. Client turned counselor turned supervisor turned friend. I saw the breaking of old binds and the formation of community. It is this vision of community that keeps me going. After almost fourteen years of doing this work, Ben's wedding provided a glimpse-a confirmation, really--of our goal.

II. SOMETHING IS WRONG HERE" NOT-SO-EARLYWARNING SIGNS

Within my first few months of practicing law at GJP, I found myself in a packed courtroom. It was full of lawyers, almost all of them were criminal defense lawyers like me--though most had years of experience and I was the impressionable new guy. It was bond hearing day. There were no clients present. Just a few District Attorneys, a judge, and thirty criminal defense lawyers.

While waiting for "my guy's" case to be called, I sat, listened and tried to appear as if I knew what I was doing. The atmosphere was relaxed. The lawyers talked freely because there were not any witnesses, any family members, or any clients. I took notice of how the lawyers spoke about their clients in this "closed room" environment. As more lawyers spoke, it became easier for them to make comments about their clients. And so I heard their true opinions-the debasing and demeaning way that lawyers refer to their clients. It was the classic "us" and "them." I heard one decades-long veteran comment, "I wouldn't want this guy in my house, Judge, but he surely should be let out of jail. …

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