serving Towson, Morgan State and UMBC


Day 6- Atlanta, public defenders, the justice system and the MLK historic site

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM

I was too tired at the end of the trip to write, so here’s the last installment of the blog.

Public defender and the criminal justice system

After a brief visit with Pastor Andrew Rickel, Lutheran-Episcopal campus pastor in Atlanta, who brought coffee and shared about his ministry, we got to hear from Willymena Joseph, a public defender in DeKalb County (part of Atlanta) who previously served in more rural areas of Georgia.


Public defenders defend about 85% of all cases brought to trial. As a public defender, there are 2 ways to handle cases given to you: you can follow the constitutional minimum of defense, which assumes that those unable to pay don’t deserve the same level of representation as those who can pay. These defenders often encourage their clients to take plea deals and don’t investigate their cases at all.


Then there’s a client-centered approach, where defenders establish a relationship with the client, talk to witnesses, tell their story at trials and give the client all the info they need to make their own decisions in the case. DeKalb County has invested state and county tax dollars in order to train public defenders and has mandated a client-centered approach in all trials. And the Public Defenders Council has pushed to pay public defenders on par with prosecutors to retain qualified persons in this work.

Ms. Joseph says that she sees a lot of cases brought in my over-policing, especially in urban areas with large percentages of African-American residents. But when it comes to prosecuting cases within the criminal justice system, she sees more injustice due to poverty than race. Some of this has to do with the bond system, with those unable to post bond for financial reasons waiting for trials sometimes up to a year, which means a year without the ability to work. She works to get people arrested on minor charges (primarily drug and theft charges) out on bond as quickly as possible as a way to get them back to work and calls family and church members to speak for them in bond hearings. For those not available for bond, she files speedy trial requests to speed up the process of waiting in jail.

Ms. Joseph told us that due to her faith (she was raised in the Pentecostal tradition and went to church every day growing up), she felt she couldn’t personally be a judge, because she couldn’t stand in judgment over another person. “Faith gives you compassion,” she told us and as a follower of Jesus, she can’t look at someone else and not see them as a brother or sister.

So what can we do if we’re not called to work directly in the criminal justice system? “Show up in court. Sit in a trial. Serve on a jury when you’re called up. Hold the powers that be accountable. And work with groups like Gideon’s Promise,” Ms. Joseph told us." target="_blank"> Gideon’s Promise trains and support public defenders to work for clients who can’t afford representation as powerfully as those who can.

Martin Luther King National Historic Site

As Pastor Flippin encouraged us, we looked more intently at MLK’s work in 1965-1968, work not talked about as often in our history books. This was when MLK turned from focusing primarily on civil rights to focusing on economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities and spoke against the dangers of militarism. And it was in 1967 that he began the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement resurrected in our time by The Rev. Dr. William Barber.

MLK’s quotes stand on their own and don’t really need any other words:


“Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or a Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law in itself is treated as the reality of the reform.”

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”

“The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. . . There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites…. The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. . . Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication, of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”


Then some of us sat in Martin Luther King’s boyhood church to him speak again about his call to this justice work, a call God gave him that ran counter to his ambition as an academic preacher. And we stood at his grave to see rushing waters that envisioned the time when the prophet Amos said that righteousness would run like an ever-flowing stream. And we read again his principles for non-violence, inspired by Jesus and guided in practical ways by Ghandi, which remind us that nonviolence is “aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.” The purpose of it is not winning against the other side, but the creation of the Beloved Community.


Closing Worship

Towson alum, Alicia, who lives in the Atlanta area, stopped by for dinner and shared some stories of our our first Spring Break trip together back in 2011. And she sayed for our closing worship, where we gave thanks for where we had been and for those who had gone before us. And we prayed for the work still to be done. And for our offering, we offered up those things from this trip that we will bring back to the communities we return to. We’ll include some of those thoughts in our final blog post.


And some of us ended with a light show at Centennial Park, and photos with the Olympic rings before the 12 hour trip home the next day.

Categories: Justice