In The Trenches
July 23, 2017
This week brought a couple new challenges with some exciting opportunities! Katie tasked me with doing the mitigation portion of client interviews for the rest of my time here at Branch 43. This means that, as the attorney, at the beginning of the interview Katie is still legally obligated to tell each client what they were charged with, the maximum sentence, as well as the offer that the prosecutor gave them as the defendant. After that, with the permission of the defendant, I can take over to get their age, where they live, education history, work history, military history, and often their medical history and any mental health problems or diagnoses they might have. I’ve reflected at length on this blog already about the specific experiences of people with severe mental health problems making their way through the system. This week Katie took over one of the interviews with a client who, upon questioning, it became clear that he had no idea where or why he was locked up. When this happens, public defenders have to do their best to determine if the client has a good enough grasp of what’s going on in order to be on the bench. Katie proceeded to ask him if he knew the separate roles of judge, prosecutor, public defender, etc. as well as if he knew what crime he allegedly committed that made him end up where he was. All of this information combined is the defendants’ “mitigation” on the bench, which is meant to convince the judge to accept the deal the prosecutor offered (that the defendant has plead to at this point) or even reduce it.
In many cases the PD has the task of simplifying the legal jargon and the proceedings to the extent that the client understands what they need to say to the judge and when, but not so much that crucial information is left out. This leads to countless opportunities for missed communication. I found that this came up especially when people had been through the system once or twice and were confident in their own knowledge of the “behavior” of the system. This or a combination of being convinced by other guys they were locked up with, or family members who had been locked up before, sometimes made them think they knew better than their PD and made decisions against Katie or Barrington’s advice on the stand.
The language of the courtroom is inaccessible to the average person without a law degree by design, and my knowledge of this from sociology classes made seeing clients make bad decisions (because they are scared or confused) all the more difficult. Katie has often discussed with me the above reasons why clients sometimes go against her advice, and she even told me that every so often former clients who may have gone against her advice have contacted her to express remorse, citing the stigma against public defenders as crooks who work with the state as opposed to their personal experience with her as the reason why they did or didn’t plead. Representing indigent clients is a beyond thankless job more often than not, but vital nonetheless.
Allegra is a sociology major from Chicago, Illinois.