As I walk into an attorney room at the Guilford County Jail, files and notepad in hand, a man in an orange jumpsuit is already seated on the other side of the glass waiting for me. As our eyes meet, I pick up on the uncertainty on Harry Blankenship’s face (the defendant’s name has been changed to protect his identity). Mr. Blankenship is a client I have visited three times before who is being held on multiple misdemeanor charges. He is the primary caregiver for his elderly uncle whom he has not been able to contact since being incarcerated. He is the father of a young child for whom he is currently battling to have custody. And since he has been in police custody for a few weeks, he will most likely be released to discover that he has lost his job and been evicted from his housing. “Any news on my case?” he asks.
Given his predicament, I prepare myself for an angry response, backlash even, when I answer, “I’m afraid not. I will keep trying to call your family members to see if anyone is able to bond you out,” I reply. “If not, it looks like you’ll be waiting in here until your court date in two weeks.” Much to my surprise, Mr. Blankenship calmly responds, “it’s okay. I appreciate you coming back to see me today and doing everything you can to help me out. Most people wouldn’t do that.”
This interaction with Mr. Blankenship is just one of hundreds I had during my time with the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office. Most of the jail visits involved delivering not-so-great news about a client’s case, simply checking to see how he was “holding up”, or accepting requests to make difficult phone calls to loved ones. While it would be impossible to fit everything this internship taught me into a single essay, I took away some important lessons:
- “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The work of Public Defenders involves relating to people at some of the lowest, most critical points of their lives. We should expect them to be distressed, emotional, or even angry. I learned that showing compassion to the clients in these situations is almost as, if not more, important than knowing and understanding the law. Most people don’t look at someone in an orange jumpsuit and feel compassion, so it is even more important for those of us who do to act on it.
- People with mental illnesses are jailed at rates extremely disproportionate to those without them.
I conducted one to three jail visits every day of my internship. In the eight weeks I was there, I can count on a single hand how many clients I visited who did not have a diagnosed mental health disorder. I saw clients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), intellectual delays, and combinations of the above. This is incredibly concerning because these individuals are not getting the treatment they need and the confinement and general nature of jail often exacerbates the symptoms of their illnesses. As a result, many mentally ill people are released into society without the resources they need to be healthy.
- In many cases, money buys justice.
Like Mr. Blankenship, many of our clients sit in jail for weeks waiting for their court dates. A vast majority of them are incarcerated, not because they are dangerous, but because they are poor and cannot make bond. The clients who are not sentenced to active time in custody are often given community service, probation, or an opportunity to complete a first-offender’s program. Unfortunately, they are also set up to fail. Assignment to community service requires paying a $250 fee to start and also having free time during the work day to do that service. This is not possible for clients with jobs. First offender programs also have a $250-$650 fee, and supervised probation costs of $40 each week. As a result, many of our clients would rather do active time in jail just to get it over with quickly and move on with their lives.
- When you understand the systemic pressures people face, their choices make more sense.
Obviously, working in defense law means defending some people who are guilty as charged. To most people, the choices that lead to violating the law are just dumb, irrational, and deserve to be punished. However, it takes an understanding of poverty, racial inequity, police brutality, and other issues to truly recognize why those decisions are made. In many cases, our clients are victims of a system that has made it very difficult for them. Consider a client who is caught selling drugs. He becomes a convicted felon who cannot get a decent job. He has three kids to feed and can make more money in a few days selling drugs than in a week working for minimum wage. This experience challenged me to put myself in the shoes of others to better understand their decisions.
- One person can’t change the system, but you can change someone’s life.
It is undeniable that our criminal justice system is terribly flawed and in need of serious reform. While no single Public Defender can right the wrongs of injustice, I learned this summer that each person can make an important impact on someone’s life. Many of our clients were untrusting of authority figures. Many of them view public defenders with the same lens as they view the police and other entities of the court. However, we can gain someone’s trust by showing compassion, listening to their story, assuring the person we believe them, and advocating zealously on their behalf, regardless of guilt.
Two weeks pass and it is finally time for Mr. Blankenship’s day in court. Desperate to get out of jail, he accepts a plea deal from the state and pleads guilty to six misdemeanor charges, even though he is only actually guilty of a one or two of them. A judge sentences him to time served and as deputies escort him from the court room back to a holding cell, Mr. Blankenship is glad to know he is going home. I smile because I feel like I helped get him there. Ultimately, the system must change and someone must take on this noble task. Luckily, there are public defenders already hard at work, dedicating their lives to helping individuals navigate our criminal justice system every day.