Profiles In Service: Athens Justice Project

Athens-Clarke County has one of the highest rates of poverty in the state, and poverty is often linked with drug addiction, crime, and recidivism. The Athens Justice Project’s mission is to break that cycle. AJP is a non-profit organization that provides legal representation, counseling, and employment enhancement opportunities to criminal offenders who struggle with addiction. Through these services, AJP helps individuals to become self-supporting and law-abiding citizens which in turn alleviates some of the effects of poverty in our community and makes Athens-Clarke County a safer and more opportunity-rich place for all residents.

I recently met with Jenni Olson, AJP’s Executive Director to learn more about AJP.

She first gave me the history of why and how AJP came to be:

“The Athens Justice Project began as a thought back in 1998, some interested individuals from the UGA school of law as well as some attorneys with the local public defenders office, and social workers and interested parties were seeing a chronic problem of recidivism attached to substance abuse in our local criminal justice system and mainly in our jail system. They knew that there were programs out there that targeted those types of individuals who, if it weren’t for their substance abuse or underlying issues, would not be engaged in criminogenic behaviors. But just by nature of the fact that illicit drug addiction, alcohol abuse, tends to lead to that sort of behavior, they were chronically exposed to having pending criminal charges, being incarcerated, and then the domino effect that creates for an individual. So they went on a research-type fact finding mission to figure out a model of substantive intervention that could be tied to the legal case but would also include a therapeutic resolution.”

There are further reasons AJP is a unique and effective option for rehabilitation:

“What’s special about the AJP is that our program is very open ended. Treating addiction is a lifelong process. We’re not only breaking a cycle that in an individual’s life may have been decades long or years long,  but generations. This is intrinsic poverty; the attitude towards drugs and alcohol in the home they grew up in, and also an attitude toward criminal activity that they were exposed to that we’re trying to break. So we develop an individualized case plan for each person and we take into account their life circumstances, history, and design it so they can be in the program for as long as they need to be. I really see addiction as a healthcare concern that isn’t treated like a healthcare concern often times, because it’s related to a lot of self medication because of mental health issues that are going undiagnosed or untreated. There’s a lack of access for a lot of people. And even for people with health insurance it’s hard. You get so many sessions with therapist per year…and that’s just not a realistic treatment of the condition. So if individuals who have access to healthcare are struggling, you can imagine that someone with no resources has no options. So the AJP steps up to be that option.”

“People who are facing pending criminal charges are obviously very motivated at that time to resolve the criminal case, but it can be an awakening to the fact that [their addiction is linked to their criminal offenses]. So it all ties together.”

Georgia and Athens in particular have a great need for this kind of program. Olson gave me some specifics as to why AJP’s work is necessary:

“Athens is definitely an important area for our kind of work because we do have a high poverty rate and we do have a high recidivism rate. There is a lot of exposure to drug and alcohol abuse in this community. It’s very accessible. So it’s a playground for a lot of people who have substance abuse issues. I think that ACC is a more progressive community than maybe some others in this state, however we have a large student population… There’s a fairly aggressive policy toward drunk driving, underage drinking, things like that. The residual effects if you are arrested for underage possession or some sort of alcohol related charge can be very long term, now. Where in the past it was considered a youthful indiscretion, now it’s like you hear about your permanent record and something following you and actually doing damage to you. That’s become more of a reality than it has been in the past.”

She described the specific methods that AJP implements to aid individuals:

“Primarily we offer legal assistance. we do have attorneys who represent individuals with pending criminal charges and with that we develop a case plan that is focused on a resolution to their other life problems. So that’s where our therapists, case managers, come into play. So we have both professionals in the legal world and the social work realm. Then we offer employment enhancement, we authored a curriculum that is designed for individuals with a criminal history who are finding that to be a barrier to employment. The legal resolution, the therapeutic side, and the employment enhancement counseling are offered as direct client services. We also do a lot of advocacy because there’s a lot of policies that affect ex offenders or people with criminal histories. So often times we will track those policies, current legislation, make sure our clients are well versed in what’s going on. But also we try to affect those policies.”

Olson also elaborated on certain policies that AJP is concerned with regard to poverty, crime, and rehabilitation of offenders:

“Recently, we’re looking at record restriction. Because we’ve become a much more transparent society with the internet, and background checks are more prevalent. And with that, and employer’s right to know or a leasing manager’s right to know a lot about your past in order to make a decision about whether or not they should hire you or you should live there. It’s used as a disqualifier often times. So when you think about the fact that one in thirteen in the state of Georgia is in some sort of correctional control be it incarcerated or on probation or parole, or finishing out a sentence of some sort. That’s a wide number of our citizens who are affected by that. So we’ve looked at what they used to call expungement and how that can affect somebody’s ability to maneuver post disposition or after they finished out their sentence. We look at hiring policies. The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] states that somebody shouldn’t be disqualified simply because they have a criminal arrest, but often that’s what’s happening. The EEOC guidelines tend to be more direct about, “does this position have anything to do with that individual’s arrest?” but that’s not really how it’s used.

The state of Georgia has a reputation for being far more punitive post sentence than other states. For example, if you have a drug conviction, you are banned from food stamps, in the state of Georgia. That isn’t a mandate from the federal government, that is something that the state can opt into or out of. So, what we see is crime is often linked to poverty. And that persistent generational poverty that occurs when you take away social services from people who have arrest records, when you take away employment opportunities, housing opportunities, what are you really leaving them with? And it’s a counterintuitive process to rehabilitation and to making the community safer.”

AJP partners with many other organizations in the community to achieve their goals. Family Counseling Service provides  the therapeutic and counseling case management services, and AJP also collaborates with Action Ministries and Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition as well as local probation and parole and law enforcement agencies.

Though they have already hosted their biggest fundraiser of the year, an annual luncheon, there are still ways to become involved and show support for AJP.  Olson emphasized that, “we need to engage everybody in this conversation. It’s really important about how we treat individuals once they’ve been arrested. We can decide to mark them as criminals forever and bar them from every pathway back into reintegration, or we can try to come up with better solutions.” She seeks to engage employers and housing officials in this discussion.

Anyone who has a professional interest in the type of work AJP does is welcome to seek volunteer opportunities with the organization.  You can find out more about the Athens Justice Project through their website.