Knox students and young alumni are gaining experience with the law before earning their bachelor’s degrees 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.
“If someone is coming to the courthouse and doesn't know where to go, whoever's working in the JusticeCorps office will help them figure out what they need to do,” said Thomas Bell, Knox assistant professor of political science. “The volunteers might help them find the right form and then help them fill it out, for example. They can't offer legal advice, but they can help people figure out how to navigate a complex process.” As the pre-law advisor, Bell acts as a liaison between Knox College and the JusticeCorps program.
Contrary to criminal cases, defendants in civil cases are not appointed a lawyer if they can’t 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 come in that want to file any civil court petition, but they don't have legal representation or they're not really sure how to go about what they want to do, they come down to the JusticeCorps office, and we either walk them through that process or connect them to resources if we can't help them at that time,” said Knox alumna Anna Rhodes ‘21.
Students can serve in JusticeCorps as volunteers, members, or fellows. Volunteers serve at least 8 to 12 hours a week for an agreed-upon length of time. Members also serve for 8 to 12 hours a week, but commit to 300 hours over the length of an academic semester, school year, or summer. Fellows either serve full-time (1,700 hours) or part-time (900 hours) over the course of a year, and they receive a living allowance. Knox alumna Alicia Olejniczak ’21 served as a member from 2019 to 2020 during her junior year at Knox and went back as a fellow after her graduation in 2021.
JusticeCorps has 12 sites that cover 11 counties in Illinois. The site in Galesburg is the smallest, which gives volunteers like Olejniczak time to complete extra projects for the program but primarily allows them to help clients to the fullest possible extent.
“With that extra time, I'm able to work on a JusticeCorps program project to help the program. I manage social media, and I run a book club for JusticeCorps,” said Olejniczak.
Students’ ability to help clients to the fullest extent can be invaluable to the people coming into the Knox County Courthouse.
“A lot of people who are in the courthouse are having very stressful days in their lives. They're often not people who really know a lot about the legal system,” Bell said.
Beyond their clients, JusticeCorps assists its volunteers throughout their service and after their time with the program. Rhodes served as a member in 2020 during her time at Knox.
“Currently, I'm working as a victim advocate at a domestic violence shelter. I do use a lot of the skills that I gained in JusticeCorps,” said Rhodes. “For example, we do a lot of intake where people need immediate housing, so they call our line, and you have to establish that rapport, that comfort with a client, which allows them to trust you, but also understand that there are professional boundaries.”
The skills that JusticeCorps participants learn are not only applicable beyond the courthouse, but they also are skills that students enjoy learning and using.
“I really loved being able to establish a rapport with somebody that came into the courthouse that needed our help. JusticeCorps was really able to provide a space for me to learn and develop those skills interpersonally and professionally with people,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes entered JusticeCorps with plans to attend law school, but after volunteering there, she developed an interest in social work and policy practice, ultimately deciding to go into social work. For Knox student and JusticeCorps volunteer Joseph Saoud ’22, the program reinforced his plan to go to law school and taught him practical courthouse skills.
“We learn a lot about the paperwork, important office-related skills, and things of that nature. I enjoy understanding the logistics of how our courthouse works. It teaches you more things than you would expect, but I enjoy helping those people who need help,” Saoud said.
JusticeCorps is geared toward students interested in the law, but other students are welcome to participate, too.
“A lot of opportunities like this just help students figure out: Is this what I want to do, or is this the professional experience that I want? Does it help me see how 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 career tracks or interests.
“If you want to work with people, it's a good place to be,” Rhodes said.