In her years as a criminal defense attorney, Kendra Spearman kept getting frustrated with what happened to her clients after the trial was over, even when they weren’t convicted of anything.

“Many of my clients need help with issues that extend beyond the courtroom,” she said. “Sometimes clients need access to services like job training, mental health [services] or education.”

Spearman wanted to show that there’s a better way, so she’s working to launch the Justice Renewal Initiative. When it opens in January 2021, the program will provide support services for residents ages 18 to 32, who are “transitioning out of the criminal justice system,” as well as lobby for reforms that would create a more supportive and restorative justice system.  

Spearman has already been  hiring staff, setting up services and assembling a board of directors. She said that the organization will primarily serve South and West Side neighborhoods, and the initiative has several West Siders involved. Rev. Joseph Griggs Jr., who serves as the organization’s deputy director, grew up in Austin, and Austin labor union organizer and activist Crystal Gardner serves on the organization’s board.

The Initiative plans to offer mental health counseling, help in finding jobs and help with getting GEDs and getting into colleges or trade schools. Spearman said that therapists have already been meeting clients online.  

Although the pandemic has complicated some of her work, Spearman feels that virtual meetings can go a long way. The plan, she said, is to do much of the work virtually until the pandemic is over. 

The West Side already has multiple organizations that try to address the root causes of violence and provide services for returning citizens, such as the Westside Health Authority, the Austin-based Institute for Non-violence Chicago and the North Lawndale Employment Network. 

Spearman said that, as an attorney, she would probably represent many of the Initiative’s clients, which would allow her to help them in a different way than other organizations.

“To have a lawyer saying, ‘I am helping my client find a job or I have a mental health counselor working with him or her,’ goes a long way,”  she said. “Some judges are actually more lenient when they see how closely I work with my clients to keep them out of the system.” 

Seeing their attorney fight for them also makes the clients more likely to do their part to change their lives, Spearman added. 

She also touted the fact that the board and the staff come from multiple backgrounds. The board includes activists, social workers, attorneys, businessmen and educators. 

“This makes us unique because we are attempting to show everyone that they can be involved in criminal justice reform, no matter their background,” Spearman said. 

Gardner serves as labor organizer for AFSCME Council 31, a labor union that represents government employees. She has also been involved in several campaigns, including a push to rename Austin’s Columbus Park.  

Gardener got to know Spearman when they worked on their master’s degrees at the DePaul University School of Public Service, and the two stayed in touch since then. When Spearman invited her to join the board, Gardner said she was ” extremely honored to be offered an opportunity to serve the community with such an intelligent and fierce woman of God.” 

She said that, so far, she’s been working on the business development and community relationships  as the head of the Community/Business Partnerships Task Force. Gardner said that what she learned from her activist parents, as well as her own experiences, have been helpful in that regard.

“I am eager to employ my organizing skills to not only promote JRI’s mission, but to identify, build and secure relationships with individuals, organizations and businesses that believe in criminal justice reform and the clients that we serve,” she said. 

For more information about the Justice Renewal Initiative, see https://www.thejri.org