Service Learning as a Vehicle for Change

It’s no secret that this country’s legal system is flawed. The rash of unmerited deaths suffered by innocent people at the hands of law enforcement along with a disproportionately high incarceration rate are just a few indicators that show how much needs to change. As this becomes more apparent, certain individuals are rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it. Johnnie Cooper is one of them.

Beginning as a legal studies student at JFK University, Johnnie recently made the transition into the JD program, and is now studying to be a lawyer. “My wife actually really pushed me to go to law school,” Johnnie admits. “She just felt that I needed to do something new.” Johnnie’s experience while carrying out his service learning project influenced both his perspective and his career aspirations. “It definitely was a life changing experience,” he says.

The JFKU Engaged Service Learning Program is designed to involve students in impactful learning experiences connected to service. Through internship, externship, clinical experience, fieldwork, practicum and on-line courses each student is afforded the opportunity to serve their community in a capacity directly related to their interests and chosen field of study.

For his service learning project, Johnnie chose to volunteer with the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office. Public defenders are appointed by the court free of charge to represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney in a court proceeding.” Johnnie’s project was to assist the Public Defender’s Office in their efforts to guarantee racial justice in the courtroom. Specifically, he collected and presented data to ensure that voir dire (jury selection) during criminal trials resulted in a jury of one’s peers.

His time at the Public Defender’s office was well spent and addressed an anomaly within the system he found difficult to ignore; a lack of minorities. “There’s a lack of minorities within the assessing process, [and] the overall indictment process,” Johnnie says. “A lot of times you go in and it’s an all white jury and the defendant is normally a minority.”

This disparity has disturbing implications on its own, but it doesn’t stop there, he says. It extends to the public defenders who, though many of their defendants are minorities, are mostly white. “There’s such a difference in the background,” Johnny laments. “There’s a lot of slang usage, a lot of jargon that their defendants tell them. That’s a communication issue.” This inconsistency between the defendant and their lawyer leads to a myriad of problems including communication issues, a lack of trust, and low relatability; all of which could undermine a defendant’s chance to a fair trial.

The solution, as Johnnie sees it, is to encourage more minorities to get involved in the civil process. This will help the community by ensuring a more diverse representation. “[We need to] get more minorities into politics doing their civil duty,” he says.

Johnnie’s service learning project gave him more clarity around his career goals and valuable professional contacts in the local legal community. Moreover, Johnnie used his project as a vehicle to effect the change that is important to him and to society. His contributions at the Public Defender’s Office will likely lead to a new precedent being set for jury selection in Contra Costa County.