June 11, 2017
This week I learned a lot about the culture of the courtroom. I had the privilege of watching a couple bench trials for the first time, learned more about the formal and informal relationships between prosecutors and public defenders, and gained insight into the types of unspoken standards that attorneys on both sides set for their respective clients. I also took on some more duties, including filling out affidavits of assets with the public defenders’ clients, filling out and filing all initial paperwork for defendants, and contacting families of defendants to figure out if they can post bond.
Bench trials are very formulaic. In misdemeanor court it is a rare occasion where things derail, but it certainly makes things interesting when they do. Working in the criminal justice system allows you to see parts of society that most people don’t know about if they’re not breaking the law. I watched a routine bench trial dissolve into the defendant being taken into lockup kicking and screaming after being accused of a simple charge of obstructing identification upon her arrest (she refused to tell the arresting officer her name). She refused to participate in court proceedings, due to the fact that she was a “sovereign citizen”. In short, this means she belongs to a large group of people in America who believe the teachings of the Bible supercede the power of the Constitution and the Supreme Court. She “objected” every time her attorney attempted to defend her, she quite literally did not believe in the criminal justice system. This story is all to express that public defenders on the whole must have a superhuman level of patience and compassion in order to effectively defend their clients, often people who believe (rightly or wrongly) that they never should have been arrested in the first place.
My semi-fluency in Spanish has been a great asset in this environment; I have had many opportunities to call clients and their families who didn’t speak English and talk to them about their family member’s bond, court dates, etc. It also just helps save time in between cases being called if someone doesn’t know if they’re in the right courtroom! I have found small ways like this to make myself useful despite not having a law license.
People often ask me if I am planning on attending law school, if I want to be a lawyer, or if I want to be a public defender. I am still unsure of my answer. This opportunity has given me some unique insight into the type of person who is drawn to this line of work, and I feel that I am in the company of people with similar values and strengths. Everyone here is extremely approachable, focused, and has a deep devotion to the well-being of Chicago and wants to use their skills to serve the needs of the people of this city. I am making great connections with the people who work in Branch 43. In upcoming weeks I plan to interview the judge presiding over Branch 43 in order to learn more about how his experience as a former Chicago police officer has influenced his role as a judge of one of its branch courts. He is a particularly compassionate and fair judge and I am interested to learn how his earlier career informs his current position. I look forward to the weeks to come!
Allegra is a sociology major from Chicago, Illinois.