Perspective

I have learned useful things everywhere I have worked.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the things I have learned from working at the public defenders’ office part-time these past three and a half years.

People often scoff at me when I say I work in criminal defense (paying bills, but it doesn’t matter).  The overwhelming response I get is, “Oh, so you try to get the bad guys out of jail, right?”

No, we don’t.

In criminal defense, we work hard to make a balance with the police force.  We want to believe the police can help us, that the prosecutors will put the “bad guys” in jail, and that things will be safe[r] for us out there.  But without the balance of criminal defense, a police state is beyond easy.  Criminal defense exists because we have constitutional rights in the Bill of Rights.  We are allowed such things as a jury trial, an attorney, probable cause, and punishments that fit the crimes.  Think of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  Had he had a defense attorney and a jury trial, would he have gotten the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread?

Criminal defense is about getting the right guys in jail, for an appropriate amount of time.  Sometimes our clients are not guilty.  Often they are, but our attorneys work to get them help (like rehab, mental health assistance, or work crews) as well as sentences that match the crime.  One woman was charged a few years ago with aggravated murder 1* (a potential death penalty in this state) for driving a car when her passenger pulled a gun out of his waistband and started shooting a man outside of the car.  Was the charge justified?  No, not in this instance.  She was able to get a plea deal to a much lesser charge and less than a year in jail.  A lot fairer.

That aside, I still find myself judging our clients on a regular basis.

We have a large gang population around here that drive fear into the hearts of every citizen.  Although non-gang members are rarely purposely hurt, they sometimes get caught in the cross-fire (or mistaken for someone).  Gang members are not well-liked in our area because they cause so much destruction and so much fear.  So when I see a client is a gang member, I automatically shove him into the drawer of “part of the problem.”  However, I also do this with victims.  Often our clients are gang members who kill other gang members.  I say such a case just the other day.  I felt no sympathy for this victim.  He chose that life, he deserved what he got.

Then I was reading the victim statements in his case file.  I only skimmed a few but it changed my life.  He was not an “upstanding citizen,” but he had a family who loved him, who he meant the world to.  His 5-year-old daughter wrote (with her mother’s help) that he would never come back to make her French toast or soup or take her to school.  Such simple things, but those were very important things about her daddy to that little girl.  I thought about being 5 and about how those things were important to me about my dad, too.

“Bad” people are rarely bad all the way through.  Even the people who we find most loathsome loved and were loved.  They are lives with value, too.  Obviously, we hope that they learn to be productive and stop harming lives, and that their children do not follow in their footsteps into a life of crime.  But at the heart of it, people are people and are worthwhile.

I’m glad I’ve had the experience of working in criminal defense.  It helps me in ways I view others.  I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m getting better, little by little.  All life is valuable.

Updates

On Monday, it will be six months since Seraphim’s death.  If he hadn’t’ve died, he would be turning six months old instead.  I can’t even imagine what my baby would look like now.

My temporary position at the library is going well, but will soon end.  That, combined with external things, has driven me into another listless frame of mind.  I am desperate to find another job, but it feels so hard.  I am comfortable where I am (not enjoying every aspect, but I know my job), and what if another job is too hard?  What if I don’t like the people there?  I like working at the library, I like my co-workers (not the supervisor though, not for the past 9 months) and I like the work.  The pay is miserable.  Unless you have a Masters in Library Science and sit in a back office talking all day, you make nothing.  I like the work at the public defenders’ office, but not the actual job.  It’s been that way the past 3 1/2 years I’ve worked there.  It was something to get me experience to get somewhere else.  So far, I’ve not moved.

Applying for jobs has become a great stress.  There are few places I can work.  I can’t drive any more, so I have to get to work by bus.  You can be five minutes late to work when you drive; when you take the bus even 30 seconds late will cost you a half hour or more.  I’d rather work here in town, but it seems no one is hiring or will look at my application.  The places that are hiring at decent wages are too far away.  I turned down a job that would require 1 1/2 hours of commute time each morning and evening (3 hours round trip).  If I could drive, it would take 10-15 minutes to get there.  Bus transfers are not so convenient.

I like the women I work with in accounting at the library–my temporary point of transfer.  They make me feel like a real person.  Little by little I let them know I have a baby who died.  I told them the whole story one afternoon (in about five minutes) when the supervisor was out and we had a bit of down time and one of the women cried profusely.  She said her sister had lost one baby in a similar way, then miscarried (at 20 weeks) her second.  Then she couldn’t have any more children.  I can only imagine the pain her sister must feel; that’s something I don’t know yet, but it’s something that terrifies me.

One lady just had a baby last year, and another just had her first grandchild.  He was born on my due date, which haunts me.  She talks about him every day.  However, she is a sweet woman who genuinely cares about me and understands my pain about the subject.  The women always try to include me in baby talk.  I appreciate that more than I can really express.  I feel valued.

I hoped they might keep me on, at least long enough to find a new job.  I felt like the transfer was more to see if I’d fit in as a replacement (the fourth person in the department quit in March and they haven’t posted for her job yet), so knowing that I am indeed going back to shelving after Labour Day feels like a personal failure.  I have not done everything perfectly, but I feel like I’m grasping their system at last.  I honestly don’t know what they’ll do when I go back; I spend 3 of my 3 1/2 hours completely occupied with a job that another woman who has not a minute of free time most days used to do.  I don’t know how she did it all before, and with me there, she has taken on new responsibilities.  All three of the women seemed upset when the supervisor confirmed the other day that I’d be back upstairs soon; they thought I’d stay on for sure.

So I am wrestling with it all.  My husband is working agriculture 7 days/week now, and when the season is over will be returning to school (he finished his first quarter this summer) to keep working on his teaching credential.  I am supposed to take a couple of accounting classes this fall, but I don’t know how I will do it all.  I still don’t have health insurance even though I paid for it.  I have also had to pay to go to the doctor.  I need to go to the doctor again, but I keep holding out until my insurance kicks in.  It never will, so now I am holding out until I have a full time job with insurance.

All the while, I wish I weren’t the primary bread-winner.  I know it’s required of me right now so that in the future it won’t be, but I do wish things were flipped.