(The following article was published Saturday, March 10, 2007, in the Macon Telegraph.)
By Jennifer Burk
TELEGRAPH STAFF WRITER
The mix of lawyers, social workers and landscapers who work for the Georgia Justice Project may seem unusual, but they work toward one common goal: representing people accused of crimes and helping them turn their lives around.
"What we're really about is trying to change people's lives," said Douglas Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project.
Ammar was the keynote speaker Friday at the Walter F. George School of Law's Law Day. He spoke at an afternoon luncheon to about 100 lawyers, judges, law students and law faculty about the importance of public service.
The Georgia Justice Project was founded by an Atlanta lawyer in 1986. It defends people accused of crimes and then helps them rebuild their lives, whether they win or lose the case.
The free legal services get people in the door, Ammar said, but after that, the project offers its clients social services and even a job through a landscape company it operates.
The project receives no government funds and raises all its money privately, Ammar said. Clients come as referrals from community groups and must be willing to work to turn their lives around.
The project has seen success. The relapse rate among its clients is about one-third that of the national population, according to the group's Web site, www.gjp.org.
"We all have an opportunity and responsibility for how we engage in the power of being a lawyer," Ammar said. "Your power is in your humanity."
Ammar related a conversation with a man serving a 15-year sentence for murder. The Georgia Justice Project provided his legal services, watched over his family and came to visit him in jail.
Ammar recalled the man saying: "You've been more than my lawyer. ... You've been my friend."
That is what the Georgia Justice Project strives for, he said.
The project hasn't started any cases in Middle Georgia - the vast majority of them are in metro Atlanta - but it occasionally makes its way down here as workers visit clients in jail, Ammar said. It's difficult for the project to expand because of its limited resources, he said.
The Georgia Justice Project has only 22 paid employees and turns away 90 percent of people who contact it each year, he said. Last year, the project had around 150 active cases, he said.
Similar programs are starting to crop up around the state, though, he said, and other states and countries have reached out to the Georgia Justice Project for help starting similar programs.
In July, Mercer University's law school started a law and public service program in which students work on real cases with offices such as legal services and the public defender, said Tim Floyd, director of the program and a law professor. Some Mercer students intern with the Georgia Justice Project.
The program was created to encourage a spirit of public service among law students, Floyd said.
"Our justice system really only works if everyone involved has an effective advocate," he said.
Randy Aderhold, chief of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle Georgia District, said public service is a necessary component of the justice system.
"Pure public service is the only way some in our society are taken care of," said Aderhold, who was awarded a meritorious service award at Law Day.
Superior Court Judge Lamar Sizemore, a Mercer law graduate, was also recognized at the event and was given the outstanding alumnus award.
"I think we all have a duty to give back to our community whenever we have the opportunity," he said.
To contact Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345
or e-mail email@example.com.