Restorative Justice in the American South – Doug Ammar (POY 20)

Restorative Justice in the American South - Doug Ammar (POY 20)

Doug Ammar directs the Georgia Justice Project, which supports those the criminal justice system harms. He boosts the restorative justice approach to crime.

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Georgia Justice Project

New Southern Strategy Coalition

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Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

This is The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.

I’m a sociologist and a writer, and I use this podcast to share stories from people who are making a difference in the lives of others, people like you and me. This is Episode 20, and you can read along with the transcript for this episode at pluralofyou.org/020.

Doug Ammar is the Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that provides legal and social support for underserved individuals in Atlanta, Georgia. The staff offers free or low-cost legal representation for clients in need, and they provide support through services like social work, job placement, and community events for those affected the most by the criminal justice system. Their goal is to help these people find productive places in society in ways that otherwise might not exist for them.

They’re also advocates for more compassionate criminal policies in the state of Georgia and throughout the southeastern United States, and the played a major role in Georgia becoming the first Southern state to pass a Ban the Box order, which helps those convicted of felonies find employment. I’ll let Doug explain what Ban the Box means later on. All of these things make the Georgia Justice Project unique because its members are committed to guiding these people even after their court cases have ended and they’ve exited the criminal justice system.

I talked with Doug about these topics back in December, and about what motivates his commitment to those that he serves. I’ll play that conversation in a moment.

Criminal justice reform is one of the few social problems in the United States that Democrats and Republicans have found common ground on in recent years. Representatives from both sides have agreed that the practice of mass incarceration in U.S. needs to change—in other words, the practice of putting millions of Americans into correctional programs. Of course, the two parties disagree on the causes and on what processes should be changed, but insiders like Doug have seen more and more bipartisan activity as the problems surrounding the system have gotten worse over the years.

There’s a lot I could discuss about the criminal justice system in the United States, but Doug does an excellent job of covering the major points on the compassionate side of the debate. I don’t want to repeat what you’ll hear him say, but many of the laws and policies that are enforced around the country are ruining people’s lives, and I can’t stress enough that this isn’t an exaggeration. Legally, felons in the U.S. can’t vote, they can’t own guns, they can’t travel to some countries, and most importantly, their access to services and benefits like loans, food stamps, and financial aid for college becomes limited. They can be also discriminated against—in many areas legally—when applying for housing and for jobs. All of that can hinder their ability to support families and better themselves overall.

Like I’ve said before on this podcast, we as humans can use anything as a social tool to help another group or to harm another group. For too long, certain groups have used the criminal justice system simply to discourage behaviors in their out-groups that they didn’t like. The good news is that Americans in many parts of the country have begun reconsidering the intent of criminal justice, especially in the deeply conservative state of Georgia.

Doug and the Georgia Justice Project embody the restorative approach to justice, which envisions criminal behaviors as indicators of underlying problems that can be treated. It also emphasizes the role of community in helping those accused of crimes as well as the victims of crimes. Advocates of restorative justice oppose the punitive approach, which seeks harsh punishment for those accused of illegal activities through forfeitures of time served or by surrendering assets. That’s generally been the more popular approach for decades throughout the U.S.

Now, if you’re tensing up at the thought of letting criminals off easy, please give this conversation a chance. The restorative approach isn’t about letting murderers and rapists go free. It’s about reevaluating the intent of our laws and why those intentions affect some groups more than others. There are dangerous people in every society—I’m not denying that—but those who are caught in the criminal justice system often wind up there because they aren’t getting help for things they need to be whole people. In many cases, taxpayers are funding programs that only delay the solutions or that make the underlying problems worse. At least that’s the gist of the restorative model.

So back to Doug. Doug was super accommodating about our conversation, and we spent over an hour talking about all sorts of things. I’m glad we were able to quote-unquote meet this way, and I hope the Georgia Justice Project’s compassionate approach toward criminal justice will catch on across the South. Here’s Doug Ammar, Executive Director of the Georgia Justice Project.

Interview with Doug Ammar

JM: I guess we should start from the beginning. What’s the purpose behind the Georgia Justice Project?

DA: The purpose is basically to work with people in the criminal justice system to demonstrate a more holistic and a humane way of treating folks, and having better outcomes, of folks in the criminal justice system; also, to represent a chance for redemption for people, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.

I think what we do is try to live that out by the three elements of what we do, whether it’s representing people on the front end of a criminal case, following them and their families into prison through our social workers, who are helping our clients. The second part of representing folks with criminal histories [is] to help folks to get a real second chance in life, even despite them having had a brush with the law. Thirdly, is to remove these barriers that exist for people who have had a brush with the law.

JM: What kinds of services do you offer?

DA: Everybody who becomes a client, they were a legal client. We were their lawyer in some capacity. What makes us different is that it’s not just legal work that keeps us connected. Our social workers also work with clients from the beginning of a case all the way through. The services we offer obviously are being somebody’s lawyer, either on a criminal case like a private or public defender but also on the criminal record side.

Then our social services can go for many years. Even this week, we have a client who just got out of prison after about ten years. The idea, though, is that we’ll be there for her to help her get back on her feet while she adjusts to free society.

One of the easiest ways of visualizing or the material way of seeing this continuum of care is we do, for instance, two big client events a year. One is this Saturday. We do a Christmas party for our clients, and we do a back to school festival for our clients and their kids. The idea is we invite anybody we’ve ever served.

We’re trying to create community for our people. The idea of that continuum of care with our social service staff—all of us, really, but our social service staff are the experts—is to be supportive as far as leaving the criminal justice system and rebuild their lives.

JM: Was it twenty-five years ago that you started? I know the organization is twenty-five years old.

DA: No. The organization is thirty, actually.

JM: Thirty. I’m sorry.

DA: Thirty as of this coming year. We were started in 1986. I came on staff in 1990, so I’ve been here twenty-five years. I volunteered in 1986, right before I went to law school. I’ve been connected with the organization for a while.

JM: In the work that you’re doing now, did you have the same mission in mind when you went to law school?

DA: It was much broader. It wasn’t this specific, certainly, in the sense that I felt very much called to law school as a person of faith, as a Christian, to find a way of integrating my faith, what would be my practice as a lawyer, and serving the poor. I even wrote that on my law school statement and was more shocked that people accepted me into law school. [laughs]

Yeah, I had in mind of doing some kind of service work as a lawyer, and serving not just poor people—serving people on the margins.

JM: How did you get involved with the Georgia Justice Project?

DA: After graduating from college, I took a couple of years off. I went to a small undergrad, liberal arts school that was intense. I took a few years off and I moved to Birmingham and took a job selling toothpaste for Proctor & Gamble. Just a job, it was fine. As I was heading back to law school, I applied and worked for two years.

A good friend of mine from college, we became roommates in Birmingham—he’s now a theologian. He invited me to come over with him here to Atlanta to help run an urban ministry sort of plunge for a bunch of college kids who thought they wanted to do urban ministry. He invited me to come to Atlanta, all of us were going to the same church, and this one guy said, “You’re going to law school in a few months. You should meet that guy over there.” He directed me to the founder of the organization, who had just started.

That’s how I got connected: because of the church, because of my journey coming to Atlanta, working with that urban ministry sort of thing, and also going to this church.

JM: In meeting the founder, how did he impress upon you the importance of that mission? What was the selling point that made you think, ‘Oh, I could do this’?

DA: That’s a good question.

John [Pickens], who’s still alive—he’s in Alabama now, your old haunt.

JM: Yeah, yeah.

DA: He runs the Appleseed Foundation of Alabama. For him, it was a personal mission. I think anybody who met John, what he impresses you with is your incredible, earnest, grounded commitment.

In the summer, I was getting ready to go back to school, heading to Virginia. I said one day to him, I said, “John, this is great work, but tell me: what are you doing to change the system?” I call this white man’s disease because white guys, we think we run the world and unfortunately we do too often. My vision of doing service was to change the system, right?

John, who is a white guy and who had been in power structures much more significant than I ever had, he said—he didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Nothing,” and I was caught off-guard. I said, “What do you mean ‘Nothing?’ The criminal justice system’s broken, isn’t it?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, there’s terrible things that happen.” He said, “Yeah, that’s right.” I said, “Then why aren’t you trying to change it?”

He didn’t miss a beat. He said, “I’m here to serve one person at a time to do justice for that person, then I go to the next person.” When he told me me that almost thirty years ago, I remember being humbled. That reflected to me his commitment.

That’s the kind of person John was: he was focused and didn’t care if people noticed, he didn’t care about accolades, he didn’t care about press. It was humbling for me. I thought the point of getting a law degree in some part was to go change the world, not necessarily to work with one person at a time.

JM: What excites you about working with the Georgia Justice Project?

DA: A lot of things. Being a lawyer, for instance—if you’re a lawyer, and you want to go help people and serve people, often all you’re wearing is your hat as a lawyer. I’m there to resolve the case and then take the next case. The idea of staying with somebody long past the case is over, the idea that I get to use my head, certainly: I get to be a lawyer, I get to think—I like being a lawyer. I think it’s fascinating, it’s really fun. If I were just doing that, I don’t think I’d be as excited. I would plug in that tool every time I dealt with a client.

The beauty for me on one level is I get to work with my head and my heart, and that the commitment to the client is as much about embracing that person, being with that person, being available for that person many years after the case. One of our guys, the guy who is playing Santa Claus at our Christmas event this Saturday, is a guy who I represented or met him in 1994. To me, that allows my heart and my head to work in tandem [in a way] that most lawyers who are doing the best work in the country and our communities don’t get a chance to do.

The other thing I would say: in the last ten years or so, we’ve been focused on policy work as well as direct service. A lot of people who are lawyers doing good work or lawyers doing policy work don’t get to have those two worlds intersect in their daily lives or work lives. To me, it’s critical that if we were ever going to reach out to do policy work, which we again started doing about 20-24 years into the organization’s history, that it be connected and tethered to serving people.

Again, it’s sort of this balance of using different tools as a person but making a difference on lots of different levels at the same time that makes it very exciting.

JM: I found out about your organization because I was reading about Ban the Box policies around the U.S. Somewhere I got the indication that your organization had helped to advocate for the executive order that came down in Georgia—was it this year or last year?

DA: It was February of this year.

JM: February of this year, okay. First of all, could you explain what Ban the Box is?

DA: Sure. Ban the Box—the phrase comes out of some advocates we know in the Bay Area in California. It started about ten or so years ago.

The idea is that, on a job application, if there’s a box—and there often is—that asks, “Check this box if you’ve been convicted of a crime.” Some of them will say, “Check this box if you’ve been arrested.” If that box is on the application, and it’s often on the first page of the application, the thought is that candidate, that applicant, has a great likelihood of not being considered after that box is checked. We’ve seen this happen. Anecdotally, I can tell you everyone in this field [would say] that it’s absolutely true.

The idea of Ban the Box is not that an employer can’t ever find out if the person has a record. The idea is trying to hold off on answering that question until after the employer has screened a number of people, then I run the background check. Now, as an employer, I have the context of knowing that Josh would be a great employee, he knows how to do this job, but he was convicted of something when he was a kid.

In this context, instead of saying, “I see Josh’s first page, and he checked the box on Page 1,” I never get the chance of seeing what kind of experience he has. I don’t know how old that conviction is. I don’t know the circumstances of what happened. I won’t know that he’s been clean and straight for twenty years. All I see is that box.

In fact, we’ve renamed it. We’ve tried to get the legislature to buy into the phrase “Enhance the Chance.” It’s not so much about stopping something. It’s more about enhancing the opportunity, enhancing the chance for that candidate, that client, a person with a record, to be considered for who they are, not for the worst thing they ever did.

JM: The problem I’ve read [is that] I can be convicted for a crime at age 18, and it still affects my employment chances years down the line. Have you found that to be true?

DA: Absolutely. Yes. [laughs] I could talk about that for quite a while.

JM: I’m sure, yeah.

DA: To talk about Georgia, I’m sitting in the biggest county in the state, Fulton County. Fulton County’s job application had those boxes at the top, at the very top of the questions. We pointed this out to the governor a couple of years ago, which led to him signing the executive order. We asked the governor, “How far down the questions do you have to go before you’re asked whether you have a conviction when you apply for a job in the state of Georgia?” He had no idea. We, of course, pulled it out and highlighted it. It was the fourth question. The fourth question after name, address, and Social Security Number, said, “Have you been convicted?”

Once the governor got it, he got it quickly. In fact, I heard him speak at lawyers’ groups and faith groups around the state. He would talk about, before signing the order, he would say, “Who’s going to hire them? Who’s going to consider that candidate when they see that box?” We’ve seen so many people, so many of our clients—we’ve worked with thousands of people obviously by this point. We’ve seen so many people denied.

Some decided to just start lying, not checking the box, [then] getting the job, working there for months—sometimes years—and being good people. They get called into the H.R. office, and the lawyers have told the employer, “You’ve got to fire this person because of their record.” Often, they’ll fire them because they lied on the application. It’s a real Catch-22 for folks.

We’re glad that the governor was willing to do this—we’re the first Southern state to do it. We actually, as you know, wrote the executive order for the state, and wrote the orders and the policies for the county here as well. We’ve worked with a number of jurisdictions around the state, as well.

JM: What circumstances facilitated that order was able to pass in 2015 when, in the past, it wasn’t able to in Georgia?

DA: Criminal justice reform is at a fascinating stage in our society right now.

JM: How do you mean?

DA: Let me put it this way—I’ll give you a real-world number. When I moved to Georgia in 1986, there were 8,000 people in the prison system. At its height a couple of years ago, the Georgia prison system had 57,000 people in prison.

This number around the country—most datasticians, if you will, criminologists and sociologists, will talk about anywhere from a 650-850 percent increase in incarceration from the mid-1980s to today. We’ve been on this road, building more prisons and incarcerating more people.

Let me give you a couple of other data points you should know in the context. America incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. The South, where I’m living, incarcarates more of its population than any other part of the country. In America, one in four people—about 70 million people—have a criminal record. In Georgia, it’s one out of three or a little bit over that, almost 40 percent—almost four million people—have a record in Georgia.

JM: Oh, my goodness.

DA: The percent of people with a record in this country is higher than those who are homeless, than those who are poor, than those who are veterans. It’s a huge number of people. What’s led to all of this momentum for change is this place we’ve gotten to as a country.

The current governor, he won reelection a couple of years ago. His first inaugural address, he said, “I’m going to change the way we do criminal justice.” He’s a Republican, conservative. What’s happened around the country, this is not just the liberals, if you will.

I think a lot of people said that the Recession that happened a few years ago got some of the conversatives’ attention. They said, “Okay, budgets are shrinking everywhere. What can we cut? What’s this line item that’s been escalating dramatically for thirty years?” Prisons, jails, police. That was the first motivation for a lot of jurisdictions around the country to start changing the approach.

We’ve been working pretty closely with the governor and the mechanizations he’s put in place. The point is it wouldn’t be happening, nothing wouldn’t be happening but for his commitment. I do put his commitment in the context of a larger national conversation.

JM: That’s great. I’m glad to hear that.

How does this type of affect you emotionally? I know the last time we talked on the phone, you had said that it was a lonely field to be in for many years.

DA: [laughs] Yes.

JM: It seems like recently more and more people are coming on board. How did you persevere through those times?

DA: We certainly have lost cases in court. As I mentioned, we continue to visit our people in prison. The idea of visiting somebody in prison not because we’re their lawyer—that’s why the Department of Corrections lets us in—but we’re there to check in on them, make sure they’re okay, try to help them get out through the parole process, et cetera.

A lot of lawyers have asked, “How can you do that?” It’s tough to lose a case, and it’s especially tough to lose a case when you think somebody was innocent and they shouldn’t have gone there. Those are the real heart-breakers.

I think, again, because I’m not just able to tap into my intellectual tools as a lawyer but really tap into my emotional and spiritual side of my life, that is a comfort in a way, right? It’s not just about the dramaticness or the difficulty of the arrest process, the court process, and the prison process. It’s about investing in the humanity and affirming the humanity of our clients over all of these stages in a whole different way. I think that’s kept me a lot from being burned out, if you will. It’s kept me sane.

I want to also say: I’m a person of faith and I feel called to this work, as I mentioned. That keeps me grounded in why I’m here.

The third I would say is, another real reason I’m in this work is because of how I grew up. I grew up very poor, I grew up with a single parent, my father, who was an alcoholic. He died of alcoholism. We bounced around a lot. For me, doing this work is about connecting, healing, and connecting with my own past.

In that sense, it’s not isolated. I often felt isolated in my work—I don’t want to deny what I said to you earlier, but there’s a drive inside of me that’s also about bringing some kind of healing, some kind of hope for folks who are often excluded. That is personal for me.

JM: Gotcha.

I was reading on your website that roughly 90 percent of people that are involved in the criminal justice system live below the poverty line. I was hoping you could provide some context for why that is.

DA: Sure. I hate to make it an international conversation, but I had this conversation at least twice in the last day about terrorism and the folks who are being induced by the jihadists, if you will, to join ISIS. People who have or are often living in non-Western countries, why are they so easily seduced to kill themselves and to kill others?

More and more, the data I think suggests a similar pattern, and that is these are folks who are marginalized. They don’t have the economic opportunities that others have. They really are either desperate sometimes or is someone without a lot of hope.

I think the same analogy overlaps into the criminal justice system. If you have hope for your life, then you’re going to make a plan. You’re looking forward to the next thing, and therefore you’re making decisions in a way that says, “I don’t want to jeopardize what I’m hoping to get to.” Hope is at the center of this piece.

Folks who are marginalized economically lose hope very quickly. They become disengaged. Therefore, what’s to lose? What’s to lose often not necessarily [by] resorting strictly to crime. The other number that I think is even more telling is that 75-80 percent of all arrests in the country are related to drug and alcohol.

JM: Really?

DA: Yeah. What leads most folks into drugs and crime isn’t just, “Okay, I wanted something and I went to get it.” It’s a connection to drugs and alcohol. Why does somebody, whatever age they are, turn to that, especially if you’re poor? It’s because you don’t have hope. You don’t have a sense of your own future.

JM: That reminds me of a quote I read a few years ago. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”

DA: [laughs] Nice!

JM: That’s always stuck with me when I’ve been reading about issues like this, especially with restorative justice.

I did want to ask: I know there are plenty of opponents to restorative justice practices. Are there risks involved with the restorative justice approach?

DA: Speaking of quotes, one quote that I love—let me break this into two general buckets, first of all. The criminal justice system is easily divided into two, maybe three buckets: what people call front-end and back-end. Getting arrested and charged, going through the court process, determining guilt or innocence by a judge and/or sentenced by a judge, et cetera: that’s the front-end. Then there’s possibly prison, but anything after that is back-end, right?

There’s a great quote that I love. I do a lot of talks using Les Misérables, not the musical version. It was a book that had a huge impact on me as a kid. There’s a great quote that Jean Valjean says. You know the story, I’m sure. He’s sitting at the table with the Bishop. He just got out of prison and he’s having the meal where he spends the night.

The Bishop’s asking, “Where are you going to go?” He holds up his ID and says, “They told me to go to Dijon because that’s where I’m supposed to go. I’m supposed to go and get a job. I’m supposed to get a place to stay.” He says, “Who going to hire me?” He says—this is the quote—”Now the real punishment begins.”

The idea that we often talk about—I often don’t even like to use “second chances.” I call it double punishment. What we’re really talking about on the back-end of this equation of a restorative approach is, “Are we going to continue to punish somebody forever?” Getting people to ask that question opens up the conversation. It’s not just thinking about what happens on the front-end. It’s not just about diverting somebody from a conviction or diverting them from prison. It’s now on the back-end.

When you start asking it that way, then most people will say, “Yeah, we don’t want to punish people forever.” Then you start asking, “Well, what are we punishing them for?” The vast majority of crimes [among] people in prison are for non-violent offenses. That gets even more thinking: “What are we using the punishment side for?”

There’s another great expression that’s come out of the Texas Right on Crime movement. Are we putting people in prison or jail—the punishment side—are we punishing them because we’re afraid of them or because we’re mad at them? What’s happened is, prison for a long time, even Biblically, was used for people we were afraid of. These were people who were going to do harm, and we were worried about that. We’ve shifted in the last thirty years to use the punishment side of the criminal justice system for people we are angry with, who do not necessarily pose a significant threat to society.

When you ask those questions, I think restorative opportunities are more easy to embrace. I think, to the point of people who have not bought into a restorative approach, or might oppose it and the risks involved, if you will, they are more focused on punishment. I often ask, “When does the punishment stop?” or as Jean Valjean says after nineteen years in prison—it’s amazing. The book was written 150 years ago and he nailed it to where we are today in America. “Now the real punishment begins.”

Are there people opposed to that? Yes, there are. Are there risks? That’s a whole other question.

There’s some fascinating folks up at CUNY Albany who have been studying what is the risk of somebody who is convicted of something and their tendency to recommit a crime. If people are prone to do that or are in circumstances to do crime, there’s a window where they’re probably going to do it. There’s a window where they usually stop. What’s even more fascinating is there is a window after somebody stops and they reach a certain age, once you’re 2-3-5-6-8 years out of committing a crime for the average population, you as somebody who’s committed a crime in the past start to blend in with the rest of the population on your propensity to commit another crime.

Those data points start to suggest that the real risk is minimal, especially five to seven years after certain offenses. These are often even violent offenses. If somebody can do right—they might have done something wrong, but their propensity to do something wrong again diminishes greatly over time, based on their age and based on what they’ve done. I’m giving you the argument for why someone shouldn’t continue to punish, or why there’s less and less risk.

One other thing I want to say back to the 75 percent of arrests involved with drugs and alcohol, is that what has been good around the country is a movement to drug courts. Here in Georgia, they call them accountability courts. There is the recognition, just like mental health courts, that the reason somebody broke the law or did something wrong by societal standards is they had a problem. Until that problem is addressed, there’s a good likelihood they might continue it.

The risk of somebody continuing to do something wrong, and I’m using quote-unquote wrong, is that it’s often based on some other medical, physiological, psychological issue that often can be dealt with. That diminishes the risk of somebody perpetuating more crime. Thank God that so many places around the country now are taking on that approach.

I think those are ways to reducing the risk, and those are ways of addressing the concerns when somebody says, “Well, I’m all about punishment all day long, every day.” I think there’s real, concrete answers that can assuage their concern.

JM: How can we keep this momentum rolling of reassessing the criminal justice system to be more compassionate and restorative? We both come from the South, and we both know that there’s a lot of opposition morally to alternatives like Ban the Box and those kinds of things. I’m just wondering: do you have any experience with convincing people not to punish former criminals forever?

DA: A couple of thoughts come up to me. I think about these a lot.

[My] first thought is about narcissism. Our culture has become so narcissistic in so many ways. The expectation today is to do something, react to something, whatever something, give to something philanthropically if it’s connected to me, if it will help my life. That concerns me, but it’s a fact.

You layer that in with the fact that America incarcerates more people than it’s ever incarcerated, than any other country in the world, that we have five percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the incarcerated population—that’s an amazing data point. That means that more and more people, regular people, have bumped into the system.

The reason I couple these two is, I would love for us to be a society where we do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. I won’t have to make an argument to somebody to say, “You should do this because it will cut down on your taxes.” “You should do this because it’s happened to you. Hasn’t this happened to you or somebody in your family?” “Yeah, it has.” “You want to change it, don’t you?”

Too often today, we make decisions because it’s in our best interest to do them. Again, I’m not blaming them; I’m blaming our culture. It’s getting harder and harder to identify with the other, to be compassionate for the other for its own inherit reasons, right?

I say all of that, too, I want to add this point: we haven’t talked about race. First of all, you know the numbers on race. The criminal justice system disproportionately affects folk of color, particularly men of color. My concern in coupling these two different pieces together is this: once we—I say we as a white, middle-class culture—those in power feel the system has backed off enough, that we aren’t incarcerating our friends, that it isn’t touching my cousins and the people I know, that we will go back to saying, “Well, yeah. Go incarcerate them. Incarcerate the other because they aren’t us.” Unfortunately in this country, and especially in the South, that will lead to incarcerating more men of color, more people of color.

I think the racial component to the criminal justice system has to be talked about. At the end of the day, we’ve got to be committed to is justice and fairness for everybody. The beautiful thing, whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement or the Declaration of Independence, is that’s something we all believe in. That is one of our biggest hopes emerging out of this, that it’s not just about what happened to me, my friend down the street, or my cousin in Topeka, Kansas. It’s about what affects everybody.

I think this racial element of the criminal justice system is an opportunity right now to challenge our narcissistic leanings. If we can continue being critical as a country, to look at what happens in the criminal justice system, I think that will hearken to our deepest of highest callings as humans: to be fair and be just, and not just to reduce the costs of incarceration.

JM: Right. I agree with that.

Where can we follow the Georgia Justice Project online?

DA: Our website is easy. It’s gjp.org. We do have a Facebook page that some of our staff, younger than I, keep up. We try to post things that are happening. We do have a Twitter feed, which I think we still use it some. We have a mailing list of about 10,000 people. We regularly send out mailings electronically.

The other way to maybe be involved or to follow is, we helped to start a loose coalition of about fourteen states—as many as fifty organizations have been involved—called the New Southern Strategy Coalition. Newsouthernstrategy.org is the website. The idea there is to try and link up learnings from groups in the South. We’re working on criminal justice issues, primarily collateral consequence issues, issues that affect you once you’ve been through the system. That is a good way of seeing all of what’s happening in Georgia, certainly, but with some of our partners around the Southern states.

There’s a lot of powerful momentum happening, and we’re honored and glad to be a part of it.

JM: I feel enriched having talked to you. You seem like a really nice guy. I really appreciate your time.

DA: My pleasure. Josh, thanks for what you’re doing. I really appreciate what you’re doing. It’s wonderful that you’re trying to lift up positive stories and people around the country. That’s wonderful.

JM: Yeah, yeah. Not to be gleefully optimistic, just less pessimistic.

DA: There you go.

JM: I’ve taken enough of your time, Doug. I appreciate it.

DA: Josh, thank you so much, man.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in rainy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources at pluralofyou.org. You can keep in touch and get updates about people helping people on Facebook and Twitter at pluralofyou. If you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe and subscribe to the podcast.

If you liked my talk with Doug, check out Episode 9 with Katherine Weathers, a detention center volunteer from Huntsville, Alabama. You can find that at pluralofyou.org/009.

Also, if you’d like to help The Plural of You, please tell somebody about it. I produce this podcast for free to help spread social optimism. I can’t do it without your help, so if you’re as tired as I was of only hearing about the worst people in the world, let somebody know about this podcast. I’d really appreciate it.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

If you’re interested in having more empathy in your life, try imagining the backstory the next time you hear or read about a crime in the news. Whether it’s a parent neglecting their children, a mass shooting, or whatever the next horrible event may be, don’t just complain about the suspects being bad people. Really think about what the circumstances must have been like to drive those individuals to do what they did. Our culture will only move toward restorative justice when we acknowledge that crime is more complex than people acting impulsively, and you can help by training yourself to spot the human factors behind issues like these in the future.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.