One of the biggest reasons I decided to start writing about my experience as a public defender was so I could express and articulate the difficulties of the job in hopes that it would somehow help me cope with those difficulties. The problem with writing solely about the difficulties I experience is that, in doing so, it’s easy to minimize the experience of my clients. For example, as a female-public defender, I experience sexual and gender-based violence, degradation, and humiliation on a daily basis. Usually, these experiences are a result of words or comments. But some are a result of body language, gestures, or even some form of unwanted physical touching. In limited experiences, I’ve felt physically endanger. I think – inherently, this line of work can make a woman feel unsafe. My fear is that, if I were to reflect on these feelings in my writing – as it pertains to my clients – I will be dehumanizing them even more than the system already has. This is the last thing I want to do, but I’m hoping it’s possible to reflect on my own experience while also continuing to validate the experience of those caught up in the system. In doing so, I think it’s necessary for me to draw a connection between the behaviors and their origins as well as to acknowledge that these behaviors aren’t racially, culturally, or socio-economically specific. Misogyny is prevalent amongst ALL of society, not just those wrapped up in the criminal-justice system.
Violence, like many unfavorable behaviors, is learned. And trauma contributes to the manifestation of violence and anger. Whether it be one’s lived trauma or historic trauma, it has direct correlations to violence and, of course, substance abuse, which can also contribute to violence. In many instances, this learned violence is directed toward and perpetuated against women. Here’s the thing, for every one story I have of a client crossing the line and making me feel unsafe mentally, emotionally, or physically, I have two more stories involving the men – and even women – I work with and around. The system itself breeds a dynamic that promotes unhealthy power relations exacerbated by misogyny. These unhealthy power relations especially exist between defense attorneys and the prosecutor and/or judge involved in a case. Add to the equation the defense attorney being a woman and gay and it’s the perfect recipe for certain forms of sex and gender-based violence. Again, most of this violence comes in the form of words and is often disguised with professional tones and atmospheres, but it is more than enough to elicit feelings of humiliation and inferiority.
Much of my job is negotiating, with prosecutors and judges, plea agreements and sentences for my clients. Guideline sentencing creates a unique relationship between defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. It effectively took much of the discretion judges had in imposing sentences and gave it to prosecutors. This is not to say judges don’t wield significant power. Prosecutors have the discretion to offer plea agreements of any kind to a criminal defendant. This prosecutorial discretion can take someone who’s statutorily facing a mandatory prison term and a sentence of up to decades behind bars and provide them with a probation-eligible plea agreement. Of course, the judge can choose to accept or deny any terms of a plea agreement. And when your client gets a prison sentence, the judge has a range of time with which he can choose from. In some cases, that prison range can differ up to twenty-five years.
Needless to say, much of my interactions with prosecutors and judges involve pleading with them and, ultimately, asking for or attempting to convince them of something only they have the power to give. The power that these imperfect human beings wield, subjects me to more aggression, more humiliation, more dehumanization, more violence than any of my powerless clients ever have.