I spent my summer working at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore City. When I told people where I was going I received a lot of mixed reactions. Some asked me, why Baltimore? Isn’t it dangerous there? Others were curious to know how I could help defend criminals. Don’t they all deserve what’s coming to them? Mostly, though, people wanted to know how I felt about my summer. They wanted to know if I became cynical about the extensive social problems in the U.S., or if I was disheartened by what I witnessed. If my time in Baltimore taught me anything, it’s that the American criminal justice system is not just. It continues to unfairly target and prosecute minorities, it strips its victims of their humanity, and it traps people in a cycle of poverty and crime. In spite of the injustice I observed, however, I still left my summer internship more hopeful for our country’s future than when I entered it.
Despite efforts to raise awareness about racial profiling, it still influences arrests made and the demographics of incarcerated persons today. This summer I encountered countless examples of police officers unfairly targeting young black men. For example, one of our clients, who happened to be a younger black man, was waiting in his car for a friend to come out of his apartment building. A police officer on patrol deemed his behavior suspicious and went to the car to question him. After our client explained the situation, the officer claims he smelled marijuana and ordered the man out of his car. After searching the car, the officer did not discover any marijuana, but did find a gun under the lining of the trunk. Though it was a rental vehicle and our client claims he had no knowledge of the gun, he was arrested and detained. Regardless of whether he had knowledge of the gun, the man never should have been stopped or questioned in the first place.
In addition to targeting certain demographics, the criminal justice system strips its victims of their humanity, making it easier for society to accept the high rates at which people are incarcerated. The first time I realized this was after a woman represented herself in a bench trial and was sentenced to six months in jail. She had no criminal record and appeared shocked by her sentencing. The bailiff slapped her with handcuffs and sat her on the front bench of the extremely crowded courtroom — all while she was crying uncontrollably. After this had gone on for over ten minutes, I asked the bailiff if we could get her a tissue and help clean her face. He responded that he wasn’t going to touch her and then radioed the correctional officers that he needed someone to retrieve a female prisoner. The term female prisoner struck me, as in the blink of an eye the woman sitting before me went from being a person worthy of respect to just another prisoner without even the right to wipe the snot off of her own face. After people are labeled a rapist, thief, or murderer, society turns away from them and they become their label. That is why public defenders’ work is so meaningful. It gives people back their humanity by giving them a voice.
Poverty and crime go hand in hand. This is not to say that everyone who experiences poverty engages in criminal activity, or that everyone who commits a crime lives in poverty, but once people experiencing poverty enter the criminal justice system, it is incredibly difficult to escape. One of our clients, for example, violated his probation because he accumulated two speeding tickets that he was unable to pay. Though we were eventually able to explain his situation to the judge and file a motion to convert his fines to community service, he still served some time in jail because of speeding tickets. Furthermore, even though public defenders are free, the criminal justice system is expensive. There are court costs, probation fees, bail money, and expungement fees just to name a few of the expenses. Oftentimes if someone cannot afford to pay the fees associated with being convicted, they turn to criminal activities to pay them, which perpetuates the cycle.
Despite all of the injustice I observed this summer, I still leave feeling overjoyed by the optimism and dedication with which the public defenders worked. Whether it was staying in jail until nine at night to comfort a scared client, standing in as a friend of the court for people who were unrepresented, or explaining court proceedings in laymen’s terms to worried family members, all of the attorneys seemed to go the extra mile. They cared deeply about their clients’ well-being and often acted as a friend in addition to an attorney. Not only are the public defenders in the trenches working to end mass incarceration, they are also on the front lines of larger, systemic battles. Baltimore’s Public Defender Office just created a new task force to combat police misconduct, resulting in many cases being reopened due to illegal searches or seizures, planting evidence, or unfair treatment. Over time, their work will help reverse the tide of mass incarceration.
This summer has undoubtedly enhanced my understanding of how intertwined the issues of poverty, racial profiling, and mass incarceration are and how deep the problems run in our society. Regardless of this realization, however, I choose to focus on the positives. With all of the good happening in the world, and the many selfless people who dedicate their lives to fighting the injustices they see, how can I be anything but hopeful after this summer? Not only am I hopeful for the change that public defenders are contributing to in society, but I am inspired to be part of the change and excited to inspire others.
Editorial Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.