One time I was talking to this elderly lady, and she asked me what I do. I said “I defend criminals.” The look of disgust on her face caused me to chuckle a bit, as I understood that like many people across the nation, she was unaware of the true reality of the criminal justice system.
She said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”
I responded with: “Yes, I defend criminals.”
Why do I do it?
I know it may seem cliché, but I genuinely believe that we are not the sum of our greatest mistakes.
Furthermore, I believe that everybody has a story. For the most part, no one is born a “criminal.” You don’t get to choose your family, you don’t get to choose the environment you grow up in, and you don’t get to choose what unforeseen circumstances knock you off your feet.
While I am in no way excusing poor decision-making, we all make mistakes. Some people just get caught in their dirt, while yours goes unnoticed.
Everyone has a story. There is a reason behind every mistake that we make.
Now, there are some down sides to this work. Sometimes I seriously question whether what I am doing is effective. I am passionate about criminal justice reform, and at times I don’t see how I can change the system if I am an active player in the system. Unfortunately, a lot of what we do is plea negotiation, where we are telling our clients the pros and cons of going to trial vs. taking a deal. For the most part my client is just ready to get out of jail and is willing to do whatever it takes at that moment to do so, even if it’s not in her/his best interest in the long run.
Everyone will not be appreciative of what you do. But that’s life! More frustrating is that everyone doesn’t value their own life. It is a true blow to my soul when I have clients who very blatantly display their lack of care for their own lives. I genuinely care about my clients, and I want to see them succeed, so it sucks when they don’t care. Example: I’ve experienced people laughing at the actions that landed them in the system. Some of that may be caused by the lack of awareness about the serious nature of the criminal justice system; but on the contrary, it is obvious when clients know right from wrong and they have no remorse for what they’ve done wrong.
The most frustrating piece is the system. There is a system that is living, breathing, and actively working each and every day to demoralize, criminalize, and oppress people, most in which look just like me. Every day I literally watch it tear people’s lives to shreds. Sometimes, it seems as if nobody gets it. The lawyers, the officers, the judges, nobody. Half of the time we are all walking, talking robots, just going along with the system because it’s the norm and no one wants to challenge it. Many people have lost the passion that fueled them into their careers which makes the courtroom feel like a factory. Somedays it’s like an operating system in which clients are sent here and pushed there. It’s an unfortunate cycle to be a part because people often forget that lives and freedom are at stake.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I watched video arraignments. It was the most dehumanizing thing! Clients located in jail would appear on a screen for their first appearance with the judge who would read off their next court date and discuss bond modification, often times without even gazing up at the defendant, and send them on their way. One time, the defendant hadn’t even gotten in front of the screen, and the judge had read off his next court date, never even noticing that he wasn’t present. Is this justice?
So yes, I defend “criminals.” Because for one, they’re labeled as criminals, convicts, felons, and many other demoralizing terms. They’re people, with rights, who make mistakes just like you and I.
I am not focused on what they did, but more on who they are capable of being. I would be lying if I said that all of my clients have the potential to be the next Barack Obama. Quite frankly, a bright sunny future is not in the cards of many people. However, I know that most of them possess the potential to get beyond where they currently stand, to pick themselves up and to make small strides.
All of my clients are indigent, so I know that I am serving those whose voices are often silenced by the system. I am playing an active role in combatting the system as it exists, so yes I DEFEND “CRIMINALS.”