Lifting Georgia’s Criminally Accused Out of Poverty

Posted December 13, 2020
Bill signing for Georgia SB 288

Bill signing for Georgia SB 288. From left: Rep. Houston Gaines; Fulton Co. Solicitor General Keith Gammage; Sen. Tonya Anderson; Governor Brian Kemp; Amy Lancaster-King, Metro Atlanta Chamber; Brenda Smeeton and Tamyka Sims, Georgia Justice Project; and Sen. Brandon Beach.

For its first two decades, Geor­gia Jus­tice Project (GJP) pro­vid­ed low-income indi­vid­u­als in Atlanta with high-qual­i­ty, free legal ser­vices, pri­mar­i­ly in two areas: crim­i­nal defense that includes social ser­vices and resources to help for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple return to their com­mu­ni­ties. In 2008, the orga­ni­za­tion added a sig­nif­i­cant new capa­bil­i­ty: pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy to address the destruc­tive con­se­quences of an arrest or con­vic­tion, includ­ing bar­ri­ers to hous­ing and employ­ment. Today, the orga­ni­za­tion is one of the state’s most influ­en­tial voic­es on behalf of peo­ple accused of a crime and their fam­i­lies, work­ing with the state leg­is­la­ture to min­i­mize the eco­nom­ic impact of a crim­i­nal record.

Cred­it for this orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­for­ma­tion, says Attor­ney Dou­glas Ammar, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Geor­gia Jus­tice Project, is large­ly attrib­ut­able to his expe­ri­ence with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Fel­low­ship®, an inten­sive lead­er­ship pro­gram for out­stand­ing social-sec­tor exec­u­tives. The Fel­low­ship gave me the tools and the con­fi­dence to spread our organization’s wings and expand our influ­ence,” says Ammar.

Enhanc­ing skills and effectiveness

Ammar began to focus more inten­tion­al­ly on the broad­er con­se­quences of an arrest or con­vic­tion in 2003, when the Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site approached GJP to rep­re­sent 50 low-income fam­i­lies who were being relo­cat­ed because of rede­vel­op­ment, but could not get recer­ti­fi­ca­tion of their Sec­tion 8 pub­lic hous­ing vouch­ers. The rea­son: Some­one in the fam­i­ly had a crim­i­nal record. Work­ing with the Atlanta Hous­ing Author­i­ty, Ammar and his staff helped all but two res­i­dents gain recer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Addi­tion­al GJP projects with the Casey Foun­da­tion and the hous­ing author­i­ty prompt­ed the lat­ter to change its recer­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

Impressed by his legal work and his pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to low-income clients, staff at the Atlanta Civic Site encour­aged Ammar to apply for a Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Fel­low­ship. A mem­ber of the sev­enth class of Fel­lows (2007), he received lead­er­ship devel­op­ment that enhanced his skills and effec­tive­ness to make an even greater dif­fer­ence in the lives of the crim­i­nal­ly accused and their fam­i­lies. I learned how to uti­lize dif­fer­ent tools to move work for­ward in a more pro­fes­sion­al, goal-dri­ven, results-ori­ent­ed way,” says Ammar.

Using data to dri­ve orga­ni­za­tion­al strat­e­gy is a pil­lar of Results Count®, Casey’s approach to results-based lead­er­ship devel­op­ment — and that has played a crit­i­cal role in GJP’s leg­isla­tive advo­ca­cy. As an exam­ple, Ammar cites a cur­rent bill for which he is advo­cat­ing relat­ed to the sus­pen­sion of driver’s licens­es. One data point that has astound­ed leg­is­la­tors is that every year at least 203,000 Geor­gians have their driver’s licens­es sus­pend­ed while rough­ly 50,000 Geor­gians are arrest­ed for dri­ving on a sus­pend­ed license,” says Ammar. And most of those people’s licens­es were sus­pend­ed because they couldn’t afford to pay a traf­fic tick­et or fell behind in their child sup­port pay­ments. It is an issue of pover­ty. And once you can’t dri­ve, it affects your abil­i­ty to get and keep a job and sup­port your family.”

A sec­ond chance

The Fel­low­ship sup­port also helped Ammar col­lab­o­rate effec­tive­ly with part­ners to move bureau­crat­ic and leg­isla­tive sys­tems. The tools to fig­ure out what is going on with­in a group, what are the dri­vers for folks and how to han­dle that, have been a huge asset,” he says. I use those skills and think about them all the time.”

GJP’s most sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ry so far was last summer’s pas­sage of a sec­ond chance” bill (SB 288). Effec­tive Jan­u­ary 1, 2021, the law will allow many Geor­gia res­i­dents to restrict and seal records for cer­tain con­vic­tions and increase their access to eco­nom­ic, hous­ing and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ing with the Metro Atlanta Cham­ber, which rep­re­sents busi­ness­es and non­prof­its in the region, GJP demon­strat­ed to leg­is­la­tors and oth­ers that the law would affect at least 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple, the vast major­i­ty of whom were con­vict­ed of misdemeanors.

These data help to dis­pel some of the con­cerns that this bill is going to open the flood­gates to folks who are going to com­mit more crimes,” says Ammar. And that’s just not the case.”

GJP’s leg­isla­tive agen­da includes con­tin­ued advo­ca­cy for auto­mat­ic expunge­ment,” which would expand edu­ca­tion­al, hous­ing and employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties for even more Geor­gians. If you were arrest­ed and con­vict­ed five years ago for some­thing small, and you haven’t got­ten into any oth­er trou­ble, you wouldn’t have to apply to a judge to seal or restrict your records,” says Ammar. The sys­tem would auto­mat­i­cal­ly restrict the abil­i­ty of oth­ers to see your record when you apply for a job or housing.”

Read an eval­u­a­tion of the Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Fellowship

Popular Posts

View all blog posts   |   Browse Topics

Youth with curly hair in pink shirt

blog   |   June 3, 2021

Defining LGBTQ Terms and Concepts

A mother and her child are standing outdoors, each with one arm wrapped around the other. They are looking at each other and smiling. The child has a basketball in hand.

blog   |   August 1, 2022

Child Well-Being in Single-Parent Families