Cops in Avon Park, FL arrest a six year old who has thrown a tantrum. The government charges her with a felony.
Yeah, I kid you not. Nor, apparently, does the government.
I get asked a lot why I want to be a public defender. How could anyone with their eyes open not want to be? This country has amassed a dangerous amount of power and given it to small minded bureaucrats who produce absurd results in their handling of real, complex, human situations. Just think about the story above. Isn’t it something that seems right out of the cold war – but with the KGB cast as the villains suppressing the Russian free thinkers? But it’s here. It’s us. Our teachers, police, and prosecutors have all collectively thought this must be the best way to handle a six year old. And they do so with our implicit sanction, through the virtue of the discretion inherent in the positions they hold. It's disgusting.
While some people go abroad to fight human rights abuses, I’m happy to do it in my own back yard.
But Just as seriously, I thought I’d post something I wrote as to why I wanted to become a public defender:
When did I decide I wanted to become a public defender?
I couldn’t honestly say when I wanted to become a public defender, that question implies a “before” and “after.” Surely, as a child I didn’t know what a public defender was, how the justice system worked, or that there is dire need for people to represent the disenfranchised. And yet, even as a child, from my personal experience I was aware of abuse, cruelty, injustice and knew that these things were wrong, de-humanizing. A poet, Thomas Lux, wrote:
One child hears a falling through the leaves,
branches, and does not care what it is,
the other hears and knows a bird falls, and grieves
without knowing why or at what cost.
I’d like to be able to say that kind of childhood knowledge resulted in my adolescent befriending of the socially awkward, the outcasts, but while I did that, I also had my petty cruelties and my stoic/boot-strapping assumptions about the world, of which I am, even now, still ashamed. But I still believe everyone has fundamental moral orientations and mine are turned toward compassion and the belief in humans’ power to care for each other as they seek redemption. That fundamental belief led me to purse an MFA in poetry; I’m noted for writing poems which speak to disenfranchised and marginal voices, but in an accessible way. My writing led me to Georgia, where I lived under the poverty line and pursued my muse. Over 4 years there I witnessed racism and intolerance. I watched Mexican immigrants cheated by their employers and “community activists.” I saw friends dragged into court by police detectives who wanted to protect their cronies economic interests. I watched government officials disenfranchise entire census districts. During this time I weathered a number of personal crises, including becoming very sick and having difficulty paying for medical expenses. When I recovered, I applied to law school with the goal of working on behalf of the disenfranchised. I already knew some public defenders and thought likely that I would become one. At the end of my first year I was near-completely certain I would. And by the end of my second I was absolutely certain.
I have many ambitions regarding living as a public defender. First and most centrally, I wish to positively impact the lives of real people with real problems. I know that I will often be the only person expressing support for my clients – in and of itself is a worthy way to spend my time on this planet. I believe I have a balanced understanding of what this means.
I know from my experiences in the Alexandria Public Defender and in the Criminal Justice Clinic that I will often lose, and that my clients will fail to take advantage of opportunities I manage to wrangle for them. (However, it would be foolish of me to expect, as the courts often seem to, that the poor and the abused, the undereducated and disenfranchised, possess the organizational skills and cultural capital of the rich and the well treated, the educated and the empowered.) I have heard my clients cry and rage, I have been with them while they hallucinate or mechanically assess their chances, I have heard their lies and their moments of leveling candor, and I have witnessed the most humbling dignity, even from the most afflicted persons.
Beyond my direct advocacy, I want to educate myself further as a public defender. I want to be able to compassionately and persuasively tell the stories of the disenfranchised, not only to fact-finders, but to the public at large. I view crime as largely driven by poor education, poverty, lack of opportunity, mental illness, substance abuse, emotional and sexual abuse, and a host of other social ills. Many of these root causes could be addressed by a committed and caring society – but that commitment will not materialize if our citizens embrace the various televised myths of who criminals *are.* Hence the need for public defenders to be ambassadors for their work and to call the public’s attention to an often unbalanced court system.
I know that there’s a place for many different personalities within public defending. I honestly believe I have the right attitude; not a single attitude that all public defenders should adopt, but the right attitude for myself, which is a sustainable, transparent approach. I know that as I’ve taken my first small steps with my own clients that it has served me well so far. I also understand that I have a lot of growing to do within the role of public defender, that I have much to learn, and that as I gain experience I will change the way I do certain things. That will be inevitable. But I know my conviction to serve grows from who I am, and that has its own inevitability as well.