Lifting Georgia’s Criminally Accused Out of Poverty

Posted December 13, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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

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