We all know the contributing factors that cause individuals to slip through society's safety nets and into the cycle of crime: neighborhoods infested with violence and drugs; woefully underperforming schools; the lack of a structured, stable home life; and the list continues, growing depressingly long. All of these issues grow out of the larger problem of poverty. Poverty and crime have always been closely linked, and together they form a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that does a very good job of entrapping long-term many of the individuals it initially snares.
A full 66 percent of those who commit a crime will reoffend, maybe not for the same offense as before, but will certainly again run afoul of the law. I have been involved in the world of indigent criminal defense for the better part of the last two years and nothing has been impressed upon me more than how urgently we need to decrease that percentage. I used to think maybe there was no way to do so until I interned this past summer at an organization that just may have the answer-the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) in Atlanta.
The Georgia Justice Project bills itself as "an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers and a landscaping company." At first blush, it may seem a bit odd to house this trio under one roof, but the way in which they work together contains GJP's secret. GJP offers indigent people in Atlanta criminal representation and combines that aid with a full range of social services and even employment through the organization's landscaping company, New Horizon. When all three work in concert, GJP can change lives.
The cycle of poverty and crime is strong, and in order to bring about successful, lasting change in the lives of their clients, the Georgia Justice Project knows it must counter with an equally powerful force. To forever silence the siren songs of drugs and prison bars, GJP responds with devotion and caring bordering on love that it pours out to each and every client it accepts. GJP becomes intimately involved in the lives of its clients, so much so that many clients feel comfortable enough to bring their families by the office, allowing GJP staff to know their clients in a way most social services never will. GJP hosts an annual Christmas party and every summer before school starts, provides backpacks stuffed with school supplies to its clients' children. This summer, I saw GJP employees eat, laugh and socialize with clients every day and build truly meaningful relationships that became the foundations for the successfully rehabilitated lives many have found while under GJP's care. This high degree of familiarity allowed GJP to craft a personal plan of attack to help each client handle his or her unique challenges. This approach works-GJP clients' recidivism rate is a mere 17 percent compared to the 66 percent national average.
While GJP is a special organization and cannot itself be readily copied; its overall philosophy and approach to clients certainly can be. Lowering the national recidivism rate starts when we all recognize the truth to a maxim we probably saw on one of our grammar school teacher's desk: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." In order to make a lasting impact upon someone's life, you must let them know that you value them as an individual, not as merely another nameless face in a never ending parade of people whom you must serve.
Lawyers who serve the indigent, be they from public defender offices, legal aid organizations, or private firms engaging in pro bono work, must make the individuals whom they are aiding the focus of their work. I often hear talk of the necessity of maintaining professional boundaries with your clients. I say tear them down! Take those you represent out to lunch, give them a ride home, load their children up in the car to take them college visiting. Those at the Georgia Justice Project have done all of the above and more, and their successes speak volumes.
I know every attorney cannot achieve the same level of familiarity with their clients as do the attorneys at GJP, but when you make the choice to represent someone, you are not only upholding their Constitutional rights, but making an investment in their future. By showing more compassion and more attention to the specific obstacles that individuals face, I believe that we can see a decrease in the recidivism rate.