Georgia Justice Project

By Pat Buonodono

The first time I visited the Georgia Justice Project, it was located in a tiny, cluttered office and had – maybe – three employees.  Having worked at a big, fancy law firm, I thought “this is a law office?”  But when I met Doug Ammar (below), who is now the long-standing Executive Director of GJP, everything changed. 

Doug AmmarTogether with a few law school friends, I was able to work with Doug in sort of an erstwhile and informal third year practice at GJP around 1993-94.  We were able to help Doug peripherally with some cases, and observe him in court.  I was in awe.  Clients were given a good – really good – legal defense.  Amazingly, they were also connected with a social worker, who helped them with the underlying cause of their criminal behavior; they got into treatment, or GED classes, counseling, or some combination of things.  In the few instances where clients went to jail, GJP visited with them, and continues to do so. 

GJP was founded in the mid-1980s by attorney John Pickens, on these principles:

(1) Justice should not be determined by how much money you have;

(2) Nobody is beyond rehabilitation and redemption; and

(3) The entire community benefits when clients address issues underlying their arrest.[1]

Georgia Justice Project buildingSince then, GJP’s premises has changed, but not its premise.  While now in an attractive and spacious building, GJP continues to do its good work.  Much of this work is done by attorney and non-attorney volunteers.  And while they still do the criminal defense work, they have been concentrating on policy – helping the State of Georgia update its criminal justice laws. 

This work started in 2004, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation asked GJP to represent families who were being denied re-certification to live in public housing due to a criminal arrest or conviction of a family member.  In 2006, a local Atlanta foundation made a similar request.  GJP staff and volunteer lawyers were successful in representing those families, which led to the establishment of the Criminal Records/Coming Home Project in 2008.[2]

The work of this project is two-fold.  It provides direct services for community referrals while also working to change laws in Georgia that limit opportunities for those with criminal records.

Recent changes in Georgia law have been considerable. Passed in 2012, the Record Restriction Law expanded access to expungement from official criminal history entries for non-conviction, allows for restriction of certain misdemeanor convictions for youthful offenders, and allows restricted charges to be sealed so that private background-check companies cannot report them.[3]

Laws passed in 2013 and 2014 limited the publication of mugshots[4] and targeted employment struggles by providing some protection from negligent hiring liability claims for employers who hire workers who have been pardoned or issued a certificate of rehabilitation by the Department of Corrections.[5]  

In 2014, judges were given discretion to reinstate driver’s licenses for certain individuals charged with drug offenses not related to the direct operation of a motor vehicle.[6]

Laws that came in 2015 were perhaps some of the most significant. The “Ban the Box” Executive Order signed by Governor Deal in February 2015 was a fair hiring initiative that removed questions about criminal history from the original employment application for state employment and postponed the background check until the interview stage.  Employers may now only screen for relevant criminal records.  Another 2015 law mandated that eligible individuals be informed about their first offender eligibility either by their attorney or the court.[7]  If not properly informed, those defendants may be entitled to retroactive first offender treatment.[8]

Many of these changes are the result of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, initiated by Georgia’s Governor in 2010.  That body has led the way for legislative and policy change. In 2013, Governor Deal formed a special office, the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry (GOTSR, since absorbed by the Department of Community Supervision), to focus on reentry issues.  Over the last several years, GJP has worked closely with both the Reform Council and DCS.

In addition to legislative changes, GJP also launched an education/implementation strategy. Changing a law is often not enough. “A new law that grants more opportunity to those affected is only effective if its beneficiaries make use of it,” says Doug.  GJP provides a monthly training at its offices, and also trains throughout Georgia when requested.

Georgia Justice Project ChristmasI asked Doug what put him on this career path.  He responded that he felt called to law school so he could serve the poor.  He grew up with a single father, two siblings, addiction, poverty, and violence.  He says, “Poverty and suffering sort of informed my world view.  So I wanted to get out of poverty – and faith was part of that journey.”  He came to Atlanta to help run a ministry – on his way to Washington & Lee Law School, and someone said “you’re going to law school and working in a ministry?  You should meet that guy” – and pointed to John Pickens.  GJP was and is a perfect fit for Doug.

In addition to policy work and education, GJP gives it clients of its time.  Prison visitation, family visitation, post release support, annual back to school festival where all the children get filled book bags, annual Christmas party, social service support, and more.  Back in 1994, I was awed by what GJP was doing to serve Atlanta.  I still am.




[1] Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law, Ed. Marjorie Silver, Carolina Academic Press, 2017.  From Chapter 2: “The Georgia Justice Project: Reimagining the Attorney/Client Relationship” by Douglas B. Ammar.

[2] Id.

[3] O.C.G.A. § 35-3-37.

[4] O.C.G.A. § 35-1-18.

[5] O.C.G.A. § 51-1-54

[6]  O.C.G.A. § 40-5-76(b)

[7]  O.C.G.A. § 42-8-61

[8]  O.C.G.A. § 42-8-66

 

 

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