I loved interning at the Georgia Justice Project this summer. GJP’s model of client service and work culture are grounded in the values of beloved community. The organization’s way of being is an antidote to the indifference and brokenness embodied in the criminal legal system. GJP, as part of the broader movement, is transforming. GJP’s office is located on the same block as the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave; a full kitchen sits in the building’s center. As Executive Director Doug Ammar spoke to during the summer, GJP’s work is in the spirit of the servant-leadership model of showing up with clients and asking the simple question: how can we help? The diversity of social and legal services the organization provides reflects a responsiveness to the range of challenges our clients face. The organization defends clients and provides social work support for clients, yet the organization also provides a range of re-entry social and legal services: employment services, criminal records restriction and sealing, child support representation, and housing representation. The organization also engages in policy advocacy and for years, including this summer, has held a back to school fair for clients’ families.
My work this summer consisted mostly of working on a murder case and four criminal records restriction and sealing cases. I also helped with criminal defense and re-entry intakes, represented the organization at an expungement summit, and summarized criminal records to assist attorneys at expungement. I came to the internship interested in working as a criminal defense attorney. I appreciated observing how diligently and efficiently my criminal defense attorney supervisor, Senior Attorney Rachel Holmes, conducted her work. The internship also provided insight into holistic elements of representation: for instance, how the organization is able to secure favorable client legal outcomes through securing opportunities for vigorous client engagement with pre-trial social services.
Through speaking with clients and staff leading a variety of re-entry services, in addition to the defense work I was also exposed to some of the myriad ramifications people encounter when they have been accused of a crime. I left the internship with a greater sense of the barriers people face after being convicted, or even merely accused, of a crime. I saw how clients on supervised probation struggle with the indignity of probation officers showing up late at night knocking on their family home’s door or struggle to navigate employment when they have to wait for hours at probation officers’ office for a check-in. I learned that people who struggle to pay child support often have their driving licenses suspended in Georgia—leading to arrests for driving with a suspended license, incarceration, and further difficulties to pay child support. I spoke with people with criminal records who struggle to pass background checks for housing or work—jeopardizing both their own welfare as well as their family’s financial security and housing. Through visiting with clients and learning from GJP attorneys interning at GJP was an experience in bearing witness to how insidious, painful, and widespread the collateral consequences of mass incarceration are: how mass incarceration in America has created a second class of citizens, haunted by criminal arrests or convictions, who struggle accordingly to just get by. I left the internship still interested in working as a criminal defense attorney. Yet I also left with a broader interest in working as a re-entry lawyer as well.
Over the summer GJP provided ample intern learning opportunities. In addition to providing work assignments to contribute to client cases, the organization provided opportunities to attend a joint orientation organized by a host of criminal defense organizations in Georgia (the fact the organizations were able to pull off a joint orientation says a lot about the cohesiveness of the Georgia criminal defense community), observe drug court, visit a medical examiner’s office, lunch with Georgia Chief Justice Melton, attend graduation at the Metro Re-entry Facility, participate in an organizational book club (we read Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine), visit Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, as well as sit with a judge in municipal court as he dealt with first appearance cases in municipal court. My supervisors were also thoughtful about providing learning opportunities throughout work assignments: balancing both optimally serving our clients and providing training opportunities as well.
If you intern at GJP, it won’t take you long to realize that among the many things that Doug loves, food and Atlanta feature prominently. Doug takes hospitality seriously—the kitchen was not infrequently stocked with Atlanta treats (my landlord remarked that I was pudgier in the face when she saw me upon returning home to Brooklyn: she is right!), and Doug also provided several planned and impromptu tours of Atlanta as well. Doug and other senior staff were approachable, supportive, and made a point to help me feel at home this summer in Atlanta. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to intern at GJP, and I encourage those interested in criminal defense, re-entry lawyering, or social work to intern with GJP as well.