Maisie Osteen - Shepherd Alliance Internship
Maisie Osteen, Law Class of 2014, participated in a Shepherd Alliance internship during the summer of 2012. Part of the University's Shepherd Poverty Program, the Shepherd Alliance unites student interns from Berea, Middlebury, Morehouse and Spelman colleges; Washington and Lee University law and undergraduate programs; and participating Bonner Scholar institutions with agencies that work to benefit impoverished members of society. Students learn first-hand about the multiple dimensions of poverty in the United States by working for eight weeks to strengthen impoverished communities and work alongside individuals seeking to improve their communities.
Maisie Osteen '14L
John Pickens started the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) in 1986, the same year I was born. As soon as I learned about GJP I felt an inherent connection with the organization. GJP is a not-for profit organization that provides criminal indigent defense from a holistic perspective. The office staff includes five lawyers and three social workers. It requires a potential client to be admitted to both the legal side and the social service side of the organization. Due to this structure, clients receive “wrap around” services and have greater opportunity to succeed – as evidenced by their 17% recidivism rate, which is less than 1/3 the national average.
GJP provides legal services in two ways – through direct criminal representation and record expungement. Although I worked primarily in the criminal department, I was exposed to the barriers of re-entry and the challenges people who have been previously incarcerated or convicted face when they try to re-enter the outside world. Over the last few years, GJP has developed a niche in record work and is one of the only organizations offering these services to the indigent population. Criminal records can keep people from gainful employment, government subsidized housing, access to other government services, and exist as a general barrier to meaningful interactions with the rest of society.
Because of GJP’s expertise in this area, Marissa McCall Dodson, the lead attorney on records expungement, is asked to speak at numerous events. I was lucky enough to accompany her to a town hall meeting where the importance of criminal re-entry work was highlighted. There were mothers speaking on behalf of their incarcerated children and young men discussing their own challenges trying to acclimate to life on the outside. One young man told the audience that after being incarcerated for 10 years, since he was 14, he desperately wanted to be a productive member of society. Unfortunately, he was unable to find a job and without his mother’s support he would have nothing. How do we expect people not to reoffend when they are left with no options? GJP is working to offer relief to those people facing this uphill battle.
On the criminal defense side, I worked closely with the Anna Blitz, the newly appointed Director of Legal Services at GJP. Not only did her tenacity and legal knowledge impress me, but also her humility and ability to speak candidly and honestly to a client has shaped my perspective on great lawyering. I learned a lot about how to craft a legal case and was surprised by the speed of the process. Many times, while sitting in on client meetings, I heard Anna request that clients “slow down.” She doesn’t rush into the story or ambush clients with questions of culpability. Instead, she takes time to understand clients, hear about their life, their family, and what brought them in to contact with the criminal justice system. From what I can tell this is a very effective approach and something that I hope to weave into my own criminal defense practice.
Additionally, GJP, and specifically the executive director Doug Ammar, did a great job of supplementing our summer experience with “field trips.” We went to the Georgia Supreme Court and met with Justice Harold Melton, we sat in on a day of Drug Court in Judge Doris Downs’ courtroom, we went on a tour of the Department of Corrections and spoke with Commissioner Brian Owens, and we visited the Dekalb County Medical Examiner’s Office. These field trips gave depth to our understanding of the multi-faceted criminal justice system. Along with reading The New Jim Crow and hearing Commissioner Owens discuss issues with growing incarcerated population, it is clear how emotionally and financially destructive mass incarceration is on our community.
A year from now or twenty years from now, I may not remember case details or clerk’s names but I will remember the moments of humanity that I experienced this summer. At GJP, I witnessed lawyering at its best.