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.