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When navigating the justice system, defending yourself while trying to understand the legal process can be frustrating.
Acknowledging the barriers faced by low-income defendants in the 1963 Gideon decision, the Supreme Court declared that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide legal counsel for criminal defendants who can't afford an attorney. While that covers those accused in criminal cases, there is still a gap in the justice system waiting to be filled.
“When you have a criminal case you can rely on a public defender if you don’t have the money for an attorney. But if you’re dealing with something civil like a restraining order or expungements and don’t have the money, you have to rely on yourself and that can be scary,” says Tameka Newman, an Illinois State University alumna who received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 2018.
Newman works for Illinois JusticeCorps, which places college students and graduate volunteers in courthouses throughout Illinois. They help people who may be involved in a lawsuit without a lawyer navigate the system and create a less intimidating environment.
Newman is stationed at the McLean County Law and Justice Center. Although JusticeCorps members are not allowed to give legal advice, they help people by guiding them to the correct courtrooms, assisting with forms, finding a court service, and more.
“A young woman came in one day wanting to do an expungement for her criminal record. She explained the circumstances where she was arrested for theft because she didn’t have money to feed her kids, and as a mom she did what she had to in order to help her kids survive,” Newman said.
“Her situation opened my eyes because I’m a really strong believer in the justice system, and not to say what she did was appropriate but I’m proud to have a passion for a judicial system that allows you to take your mistakes and erase them in a way. Being able to expunge certain cases is amazing because standing in her way of progress is her record and by going through the expungement process, she was able to get it removed,” she said.
With a desire to bridge the gap and educate others on the legal system, Newman became a member of the JusticeCorps program on a mission to help citizens gain access to justice.
She found out about the group during her last year at ISU, where she served on the board for the Criminal Justice Association student group.
“After learning about the program and its ties to organizations like the Illinois Bar Foundation and others I aspire to get involved with, it stood out and that’s what motivated me to join,” Newman said.
Newman plans to use her JusticeCorps platform to educate and empower others.
“What good is having a resource when no one knows about it? I want to become a tool for the community and educate people on the resources available to help them make the legal process a little easier,” Newman said. “Originally I just had a passion for criminal law only, but by working with JusticeCorps I’ve gained appreciation for civil law and public aid so I would like to incorporate those into my career when I get started.”
Newman’s ultimate goal is to become a public defender and later open her own law firm.
“I want to start off as a public defender because I want to advocate for those who can’t afford (an advocate),” Newman said. “In the future I plan to to open my own law firm and since I’ve learned so much at JusticeCorps, I want to take those lessons and incorporate them into my business so I can continue to help people get through obstacles.”
After finishing her stint with JusticeCorps in August, Newman will move Chicago and search for a position as a legal assistant until starting law school next year.
Until then, anyone seeking guidance in a current case can find Newman on Mondays and Wednesdays at the law library at the McLean County Law and Justice Center.
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