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Observing a Holistic Approach To Indigent Criminal Defense


“I believe that the historical precedent for social change will endure in that actual change must come from a mass movement and not from the courts alone.”

In the eight weeks I worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, or “PDS,” I had a wide range of experiences, most of which are not repeatable due to the constraints of good taste or the confidential nature of client work. As an “Intern Investigator,” I learned a lot about the criminal justice system, government, and people.

Before I go further, I would like to offer a brief disclaimer: I may have said that “I learned a lot,” but that does not mean I have learned it all. In fact, I barely know anything. Issues as vast and complicated as criminal justice and poverty are too big and too complicated to discuss in an authoritative manner I am especially sensitive to the fact that these are not abstract or philosophical quandaries but issues that comprise and affect real people’s lives. Frankly, I think it would be insulting to claim that as a result of my time at PDS, I possess special insight into poverty or the lived experiences of clients. However, I do think that as a result of my experiences as an Intern Investigator, I have had the opportunity to observe several causes, effects, and structures of poverty as actually manifest in the real world and in a way that is not fully accessible in classroom discussion.

Perhaps my most striking experience was meeting one of my attorney’s former clients after the successful conclusion of his trial. This trial began just as my partner and I started at PDS, so there was not a lot of investigative work to be done, but we did whatever last-minute tasks were asked of us and contributed in minor ways to the case. Unlike our attorney, who had moved mountains in the pursuit of justice for her client, we were completing small tasks like serving subpoenas, listening to jail calls, doing research, and most important, bringing our client clothes before trial each day. We did not do much, but our client and his mother were grateful for our efforts. It was touching. When we saw her during trial, she often gave us tips or compliments on the outfits we had chosen for her son to wear in the courtroom.

At first, I thought this was the epitome of “terrible intern task,” right up there with getting coffee and making copies. However, after discussing this occurrence with my partner and attorney, I began to realize the importance of bringing a suit to trial. If you do not have a suit at D.C. Superior Court, you are tried in a bright orange jumpsuit. Who wears orange jumpsuits? Prisoners. Why do they wear jumpsuits? Because they are in prison. Why are they in prison? Because they have committed crimes. In the mind of the average person (or juror), an “orange jumpsuit in courtroom” may as well translate to “criminal.” I know it does for me. It is astounding how easily we make the assumption that a defendant is guilty based on what he or she wears. A suit makes an incredible difference in the presentation of the defendant to the jury. Clothes might not make the man, but they certainly help to make the case.

At PDS, there are several closets filled with men’s and women’s suits. At the end of each day of trial, my partner, staff investigator and I picked out clothes for client and set them out for the next day. My partner and I then showed up early to work to run the clothes over to Superior Court before trial in order to fulfill a very small piece of our client’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

The fact that PDS has clothes closets is astounding and represents the “client-centered” approach to criminal defense it practices. I have been told that “Public Defender” is sometimes synonymous with “hack” or “burn out.” Nothing could be further from the truth at PDS. Every day I interacted with some of the smartest, most determined, and most empathetic people I have met. PDS is not just about winning trials and leaving clients on their own. There are multiple divisions embodying a holistic approach to combatting the assembly line approach to indigent criminal justice. I worked for two attorneys, one in the Trial Division, who represents clients accused of committing serious felonies, and another in the Special Litigation Division, who deals with broad, research-intensive projects intended to change unfair and discriminatory policies and practices. Due to confidentiality, I cannot go into specifics about my SLD work, but I found it immensely satisfying from an intellectual, as well as moral, point of view.

Since I have not extensively studied how PDS functions on a macro scale, I am not qualified to state grand observations about the effectiveness of PDS, but I can say that the attorneys win trials, and do so frequently. PDS is reputed to be the best Public Defender’s office in the country and I believe it. Competition for jobs is intense and it seems that once attorneys arrive at PDS, they do not leave. Perhaps the fact that PDS is federally funded and not subject to the whims of state and county legislatures is a key ingredient in its success. Perhaps the federal government should consider funding all public defenders across the country in the pursuit of justice for indigent defendants. However, this approach might be shortsighted because it addresses mostly the symptoms of a much greater problem within the criminal justice system: the prison-industrial complex that disproportionately targets and harms people of color.

While I love PDS and have really appreciated my time there, I did at times feel that defense is the first-and-last safeguard to keep people out of prison for crimes they did not commit or for unjust amounts of time. Addressing larger causes of inequity at a societal level may be outside of the realm of a single Public Defender’s Office, and it may be outside the realm of the legal profession entirely. I believe that the historical precedent for social change will endure in that actual change must come from a mass movement and not from the courts alone.

Working at PDS has been an honor and a privilege this summer. I was disappointed not to be able to complete the full 12 weeks along with the rest of my intern class, but I was thrilled to have had the experience. While my future is uncertain and I am not sure if law school is for me, I will always look fondly and appreciatively on my time at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.


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