JusticeCorps gives Knox students and recent alumni a first experience in law

Knox students and recent graduates gain experience with the law before earning their bachelor’s degree through a statewide program called JusticeCorps. In JusticeCorps, students interested in law, social work, or similar fields volunteer at a local courthouse, allowing them to gain experience working with the law as an undergraduate student.

“If someone comes to the courthouse and doesn’t know where to go, whoever works in the JusticeCorps office will help them figure out what to do,” said Thomas Bell, assistant professor of political science at Knox. “Volunteers can help them find the right form and then help them fill it out, for example. They cannot offer legal advice, but they can help people understand how to navigate a complex process. As a pre-law advisor, Bell acts as a liaison between Knox College and the JusticeCorps program.

Unlike criminal cases, defendants in civil cases are not appointed a lawyer if they cannot afford one. JusticeCorps helps these defendants bridge the gap between where they are and where they need to be, without a lawyer, for free.

“When people want to file a claim in civil court, but they don’t have legal representation or aren’t sure how to go about it, they go to the JusticeCorps office, and we walk them through this process or connect them to resources if we can’t help them at the time,” said Knox alumna Anna Rhodes ’21.

Students can serve in JusticeCorps as volunteers, members or fellows. Volunteers serve at least 8-12 hours per week for an agreed time. Members also serve 8 to 12 hours per week, but commit to 300 hours over the duration of a college semester, school year, or summer. Fellows serve either full-time (1,700 hours) or part-time (900 hours) over the course of a year, and they receive a living allowance. Knox alumnus Alicia Olejniczak ’21 was a Fellow from 2019-2020 during her freshman year at Knox and returned as a Fellow after graduating in 2021.

JusticeCorps has 12 locations that cover 11 counties in Illinois. The Galesburg site is the smallest, which gives volunteers like Olejniczak time to complete additional projects for the program, but more importantly allows them to help clients whenever possible.

“With this extra time, I am able to work on a JusticeCorps program project to help the program. I manage social media and run a book club for JusticeCorps,” Olejniczak said.

The ability of students to assist clients to the fullest can be invaluable to individuals who show up at the Knox County Courthouse.

“A lot of people who are in the courthouse have very stressful days in their lives. These are often people who don’t know much about the legal system,” Bell said.

Beyond their clients, JusticeCorps supports its volunteers throughout their service and after their participation in the program. Rhodes was a 2020 member while at Knox.

“Currently, I work as a victim advocate at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I use a lot of the skills I learned in JusticeCorps,” Rhodes said. “For example, we do a lot of hospitality where people need immediate accommodation, so they call our line, and you have to build that rapport, that comfort with a customer, that allows them to trust you, but also understand that there are professionals at the borders.”

The skills that JusticeCorps participants learn are not only applicable beyond the courthouse, but are also skills that students enjoy learning and using.

“I really liked being able to build a relationship with someone who came to the courthouse and needed our help. JusticeCorps has really been able to provide me with a space to learn and develop these skills interpersonally and professionally with people,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes entered JusticeCorps with the intention of going to law school, but after volunteering there she developed an interest in social work and policy practice, eventually deciding to pursue social work. . For Joseph Saoud ’22, a Knox student and JusticeCorps volunteer, the program strengthened his plans to go to law school and taught him practical courthouse skills.

“We learn a lot about paperwork, important office skills and things of that nature. I like to understand the logistics of running our courthouse. It teaches you more than you think, but I like helping people who need help,” Saoud said.

JusticeCorps is aimed at students interested in law, but other students are also welcome to participate.

“A lot of opportunities like this just help students understand: is this what I want to do, or is this the work experience I want? Does it help me see how to other experiences will be better for what I want to do?” Bell said.

Rhodes believes that JusticeCorps is a space where its members can grow, regardless of their professional backgrounds or interests.

“If you want to work with people, it’s a good place to be,” Rhodes said.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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