By Leah Travis, Millsaps College (2017)
It was my last day in Washington, D.C. after having spent a whirlwind summer interning as an investigator at the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia (PDS). I was riding home on the metro after just having turned in my badge and the case files that I worked tirelessly on all summer. I had just said goodbye to my partner whom I spent countless hours with each day, traveling throughout the city, taking statements, obtaining documents, photographing crime scenes, visiting jails, and dictating radio-runs. As I was sitting on the metro, I finally started to truly process the work I had done over the summer, and the inequalities and injustices that I witnessed. During the summer, I focused on the job, the client, and my mission to help my attorney complete his duties; but now, it was over, and I was left with the realization that I was leaving my internship aching and worrying over the amount of disparity and injustice I observed in the city that should be the symbol of justice and freedom.
Confidentiality prohibits disclosure of the details about the cases I worked on and the people I helped. Each individual case led me to learn much about the law, the nature of police, and the dedication of my attorney and our team, but the truly impactful part of my summer was the overarching effects of poverty that I witnessed. I observed the intense segregation of the neighborhoods within Washington. During training for my internship, one of our instructors informed us that many cases would occur in and lead us into the neighborhood of Anacostia, considered by many as the most dangerous, crime-ridden, and impoverished neighborhoods of D.C. Despite this, I was still surprised when almost every case I worked on occurred in Anacostia; I even worked on two crimes which occurred on the exact same street and neighborhood.
Traveling from where I worked near the National Mall into Anacostia revealed deteriorated buildings, schools, and businesses. The change in the racial makeup of the residential population was evident, as Anacostia is predominately African American and Hispanic. I rarely saw a Caucasian in the area, and I never had a client who was not African American or Hispanic. Our training instructor told us that we would stand out in Anacostia due primarily to our skin color, and that the residents would assume we were either police or investigators. I honestly believed there was no way that a city could be so segregated that the mere presence of a Caucasian would be an anomaly. But several times when my partner and I exited our car, we were approached and asked if we were the “feds.” I was disturbed about the fact that it was not only unusual, but extremely rare for Caucasians to enter the neighborhood for a reason other than to arrest or question the residents of Anacostia. The fact that it was assumed I was only in the neighborhood on official business and could not be visiting the area for personal reasons was troubling, and I felt horrified at the segregation I saw in our nation’s capital.
I was also disturbed by the prominence of mental illness among the clients I worked with at the Public Defender Service. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and depression were extremely prevalent among those accused of crimes, tried in court, and incarcerated. One client suffered from extreme mental illness. Although she had previously been in a mental health facility, after being arrested, she was left to live on the streets. We did not know her whereabouts, and my partner and I wandered the streets of downtown D.C. in order to search for her. The story of this client and the others suffering from similar diseases provoked unsettling feelings and countless questions that still greatly bother me. If someone is mentally ill, can she be held responsible for her actions? What happens when one is too impoverished to afford medications to improve his or her mental health, and then is imprisoned for erratic actions that medicine could have prevented? Would time in prison – the isolation, conditions, and stress – work to exacerbate mental illness? I am still haunted by these questions and the correlation I witnessed between mental illness and incarceration, and I believe that it is imperative that this phenomenon be recognized and addressed by those within the criminal justice system.
On that final metro ride home, I was at first disheartened as I fully realized the disparities and inequalities I had witnessed over the summer. On one hand, I loved the complexities of D.C. I loved the fast paced life, the professionalism, the street performers, excellent food, free museums, hikes in Rock Creek Park, amazing bookstores, and poetry readings. On the other hand, I hated the segregation of the neighborhoods. I hated being surrounded by businessmen and women, beautiful buildings and institutions, and then driving to another sector of the city to be surrounded by crumbling and deteriorating buildings, schools without playgrounds, and many broken spirits.
But as I exited the metro, joining the busy crowd, I suddenly felt uplifted. Although I witnessed so much to despair in both D.C. and the criminal justice system, there was also so much that had inspired me. I was privileged to work at one of the best public defense offices in the country, with an attorney who has never lost a case and an organization that wins more cases than it loses. The Public Defender Service of D.C. was well-funded, well organized, and run by extremely passionate and devoted people. Observing the way public defense could function when provided with the necessary resources inspired me and has given me hope for the future of our justice system. Part of this inspiration was sparked by a simple question: What is justice?
“Justice” is a term that I have always known, and have never had to question. It is about right and wrong, good and bad, and the conflicts between those two opposite values. When I Googled definitions of “justice” the word “conform” continually appears, such as “conformity to moral rightness in action and attitude,” (thefreedictionary.com) “conforming to the law,” (merriam-webster.com) and “conformity of truth, fact, or reason” (merriam-webster.com). Although I believe in ideals of righteousness, truth, fact, and reason, the term “conform” bothers me. What if much of the truth, fact, and reason we are told to believe and understand is not actually the just ideal? What if we are misinformed, and what about influences of racism and discrimination that are so prevalent in today’s society? I don’t want to conform if our understandings fall short of justice.
The concept of the public defender implies a commitment to all of humanity.
The charges against the client, the skin color, age, occupation, personality, or history of your client does not matter; guilt and innocence do not matter. What matters is providing everyone – even the poorest, guiltiest, or most helpless individual – with equal and high quality representation. Before my internship, I knew that the organization worked to protect and help impoverished people, but now I realize that the concept of public defense is about the most basic human right that America was founded upon: justice. In the end everyone is human, and everyone deserves equal representation in a court of law, despite socio-economic status, despite culture, and despite race and ethnicity.
I say we no longer conform. In a country where racism, sexism, and classism are realities, each individual in our country needs to question the ideals we have blindly accepted as truths. We no longer need to “conform” – instead, we need to question, rebel, and redefine justice to treat each human equally. Justice should not be bought. Justice should not be affected by age, race, gender, or religion. The qualities that I witnessed at the Public Defender Service in D.C. need to be extended beyond one criminal justice organization and beyond criminal justice systems to address the segregated cities and the unequal provision for mental health that I encountered this summer. The idea of the DC Public Defender Service is an ideal for us to begin with in challenging abiding injustices in our nation and in redefining our definitions of justice.