The First Family – Carl’s Story

By Douglas Ammar

At Carl’s one-year clean “birthday” party, he paid me the highest compliment. Carl asked me to give him his chip (his one-year clean medallion – a 12-Step tradition). With most of the staff in attendance Carl said that GJP was his first family. GJP had weathered storms with Carl: two cases, one parole revocation, prison time, addiction, working with New Horizon Landscaping, encouraging him to confront his past, holding his hand and loving him all the while. We had been up and down with Carl. That night was a time to celebrate our journey together.

It took a tragic and senseless death to bring Carl and GJP together. Nearly four years ago, on a clear Sunday afternoon in an Atlanta housing project, three teenage boys were horsing around upstairs. Carl and the boy’s mother were downstairs. As the boys got ready to go to the mall, the oldest (Ed,16) found a gun. Ed started playing with it, pointing it around the room, and then the gun went off, accidentally killing his 14-year-old brother Kevin.

The police charged Ed with murder and his mother with reckless conduct. GJP represented them both. It took us nearly a year before the court and the prosecutors agreed to send Ed’s case back to juvenile court and to drop the murder charge. The mother’s charge was also eventually dropped, after months of counseling which helped her address her feelings of guilt and grief in ways prison never could. But our journey with Carl was just beginning.

Within a few months of Kevin’s death, Carl was arrested after a domestic argument took a turn for the worse. Turmoil, confusion and pain replaced the lost family member. Carl’s reliance on drugs and alcohol exacerbated a delicate situation. We successfully resolved Carl’s charge, but because he was already on parole, the parole board sent him back to prison.

Carl spent over a year in prison. We visited Carl, supporting him and hoping to build on the relationship we had begun. When released, he drifted a bit, but in early 1999 Carl came to work with New Horizon Landscaping, the business GJP operates to provide employment for folks coming out of jail or prison. Within a few weeks we noticed a problem: sporadic attendance, foggy conversations, poor attitude. A drug screen told the tale–Carl was using. Prison had kept him off the streets but had not addressed the root of his problems—his addiction. Within a few days of his positive drug screen, Carl was arrested again.

Four GJP staff members visited Carl in jail. We had been his lawyer, his employer, and his counselors. We used our relationship as leverage. Now we gave Carl an ultimatum: either enter a treatment facility or GJP’s help would end. He agreed. We enlisted the support of a wonderful community partner (a church based, long-term residential drug program), and got the approval of a proactive and innovative judge.

Over the next 18 months, we witnessed a transformation. The judge dismissed the new charge after monitoring Carl’s progress. Once hesitant about dealing with his past and his pain and his addiction, Carl has turned a corner. He has confided in and leaned on all the staff. He continues to work on NHL and has become a model employee. He is attending a horticulture class and has been drug free for over a year and a half.

Most folks would have written Carl off: ex-convict, repeat offender, addicted, poor. But this is our calling: to be present with poor folks facing criminal charges, to be a witness of hope, to encourage redemption. GJP’s work is not a quick fix. It is relationship driven. It is often long-term. It starts at a difficult place. And sometimes the journey gets darker before getting brighter.

Occasionally I am asked: “Why is there a need for GJP? Doesn’t the government provide a public defender?” I respond there is no legal group in the country who represents the family, follows clients to prison, offers counseling, offers education, offers a job and continuing support to their clients. GJP’s commitment is to help clients break their cycle of poverty, prison, and pain. GJP’s approach is more than indigent defense – it is an integrated and holistic response to those in desperate need. Len Horton, the director of the Georgia Bar Foundation, once wrote that GJP creates a new family for our clients. Though we do not normally phrase it that way, he’s right.