GARFIELD PARK — Community groups tackling violent crime in 22 neighborhoods are now offering free legal aid through their street outreach programs.
The Justice Corps community lawyering program is a project of Communities Partnering 4 Peace. It will give partnered street outreach organizations in each neighborhood on-site access to an attorney to help participants with a range of legal issues. Communities Partnering 4 Peace, also known as CP4P, is a collaboration between violence prevention groups driven by Metropolitan Family Services that gives outreach teams the resources they need to effectively reduce crime.
In East Garfield Park, the vast majority of people in gangs or at-risk for engaging in violence already have a criminal record or a pending case against them, according to Damien Morris, director of violence prevention at CP4P partner Breakthrough Urban Ministries.
Access to an attorney who can help with a case is a powerful tool violence interrupters at Breakthrough can use as an offering to help get at-risk young people into their programs and off the streets, Morris said. Once somebody takes advantage of the Justice Corps attorney at Breakthrough, they’ll also have an entryway into Breakthrough’s other services like child care, job training, mental health care and food programs.
“Nine times out of 10 … somebody is fighting a case already, and they wondering if they can get support,” Morris said. “So when we do street outreach, we can tell them, not only will we go to court with you, but also we have a resource where we can refer you to this legal team to go over your case.”
Most people targeted by Breakthrough’s outreach teams only have access to overburdened public defenders who are typically juggling too many clients to look closely at any one case, Morris said. Many of them end up pleading guilty in a bargain to avoid jail or get a lesser sentence, even when they are being overcharged or did not commit any crime at all.
This only happens because people cannot afford private legal counsel, Morris said.
“You get pressured into taking some time — that sets the stage for you committing a crime now because you already have that background,” Morris said. “Now you’re limited in the opportunities that can be provided for you. And so now you really go into the streets a little bit deeper than you would have before.”
The goal of the Justice Corps is ultimately to reduce violence by tackling the social circumstances that allow violence to thrive, said CP4P Executive Director Vaughn Bryant. The attorneys will be able to help with criminal issues like expunging cannabis convictions that make it difficult to secure employment and housing.
But they’ll also offer legal advice for those fighting civil battles like evictions, wage theft and unpaid child support that can help families get their basic needs met, Bryant said. “When you can build some positive momentum and have more assets at your disposal, it enables better choices to be made on a daily basis,” he said.
“In order for people to live a dignified life … you need to have housing, you need to have some level of education and training. If you can have a record expunged or get a legal challenge out of the way, then it creates a smoother pathway to that dignified life,” Bryant said.
Justice Corps will be led by managing attorney Sonny Thatch, who said having lawyers embedded in the neighborhood will help people to see the law as a viable pathway for solving some of their problems. “Most individuals may think of one or two issues that they may have and may not be aware that there is a legal remedy towards that,” he said.
Having attorneys on-site in the community will help meet people where they’re at and reduce barriers to getting legal advice among people served by outreach organizations, according to Miguel Keberlein, chief of Metro Family’s Legal Aid Society that created the Justice Corps.
Getting to downtown offices of legal aid groups “certainly requires quite a bit on the part of clients because they have to navigate the city to get to us. It’s cumbersome and confusing,” Keberlein said.
The community-based lawyers will also establish trust among residents as a reliable source of legal advice. Having a presence in the neighborhood will also give the attorneys an understanding of the unique and nuanced legal needs affecting a community, Keberlein said.
“We certainly want to be responsive to community needs. And I think it’s more difficult to be responsive to community needs, if you’re not actually in the community to see those needs firsthand,” he said.
For more information, contact Metropolitan Family Services’s legal aid hotline at 312-986-4105.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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