The Cycle of Dehumanization: Women As Public Defenders

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.

Guilty By Association: A Public Defender’s Plea of Innocence

Today, like many days before, I was screamed and cursed at by an in-custody client. The verbal abuse lasted nearly an hour. There was glass between us. Because of that, I didn’t feel physically endanger, which is certainly a positive. But when you’re being told you’re worthless and that you’re nothing more than a tool used by the state to help secure convictions, glass or no glass – it hurts. Some attorneys would have ended the conversation as soon as he raised his voice. Others may have lasted up until the barrage of insults where he used words I’m not going to repeat here. Despite their unwillingness to tolerate verbal abuse, many of those attorneys understand that our clients have been treated unfairly by the state. They can appreciate the inhumanity and immorality of our criminal justice system. But they still refuse to be treated poorly. Be it self-preservation or self-respect, I often don’t exhibit these modes of self-care in hostile situations with clients. Don’t get me wrong, I know how to create and maintain boundaries. There are plenty of interactions I’ve ended early after certain lines were crossed. But there are also times –times like today – where a client knows exactly what buttons to push.

I do this work because I believe there is serious injustice to be fought. Our criminal justice system is responsible for incarcerating 2.2 million people. Over 60% of those incarcerated are people of color. Since the beginning of the war on drugs, the number of people in prison for drug-related offenses has grown from 40,900 in 1980 to 469,545 in 2015. Not only are the numbers growing, but the length of incarceration is growing as well.

My client is Hispanic. He has seven prior felony convictions – most of which he plead guilty to after receiving a plea agreement from the state. In this case, the state is offering him 1 year in prison, when he’d be facing 5.75 if he were convicted at trial. My client is charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. He’s spent a majority of his life in prison for victimless, nonviolent offenses. The system has severely failed him and he recognizes the injustice. Today, he articulated this injustice with such effortlessness. While in the same breath, he accused me of being a contributor. My response was to listen. And in the few moments I was able to speak, I’d try to explain to him that I agreed with everything he had said – except for what he thought my role was. I wanted him to know that even though my job is to inform him of how the odds are stacked against him, this is not to say I agree with the way things will likely play out. If it were up to me, he wouldn’t be on the other end of that glass – caged like an animal – for even one more day, let alone the 2,099 days he is facing. Did he believe me? Probably, not, which is why I chose to stay. Despite the screaming and cussing and the awful feelings it invoked…I wanted to prove it.

Perspective’s Evolution

I tell myself not to forget who I was when I first started. In the beginning, I couldn’t handle any type of prison sentence being imposed. It made me physically ill. I’d walk away from the podium and join my client in the jury box. They’d sit cuffed and quiet while I’d express that I was sorry we didn’t get the probation-plea-agreement that we had hoped for from the prosecutor and that even if the two-and-a-half-year-prison-sentence that was imposed didn’t reflect it, they were more than deserving of getting out of custody sooner rather than later. After all, it was a victimless, nonviolent, substance-related offense. I’d channel Michelle Alexander and explain that our society’s tough-on-crime mentality and war-on-drug policies significantly influenced the prosecutor’s request and the judge’s order. That even though it didn’t seem like it, the work that they did in treatment prior to sentencing, their family, their job, their deteriorating health, their remorse, and their childhood trauma; it all meant something. But that they were going to have to ensure that it meant something. They couldn’t expect that validation to come from elected judges and prosecutors who are convinced that they have noble jobs and that punitive approaches are the best approaches.

Today, after almost two years as a public defender, the only thing that’s changed about this story is that I no longer get physically ill…or at least not as ill as I used to. It’s still hard for me to eat lunch on days like I had last week with multiple sentencing hearings; where clients are being punished with years of incarceration. But when I go home, I can sleep. I can talk to my partner and be in a good mood and even describe my day as “good.” I think part of this adaptation can be explained by perspective. Two-and-a-half years is a lot better than the almost five years the Judge had the discretion to give and has been known to give in some cases. In the beginning it felt worse. Now, it still feels bad, but the victories that can be acknowledged by perspective make it feel less bad. Some days, I worry that with this perspective, I lose the one I began this job with. But I’m just not sure the perspective I started with could be wholly maintained. If I’m going to continue this work, I need to change in ways that’ll promote the ability for long-term advocacy while also preserving the ways that are a reflection of why I began this work in the first place.

From Out to In

The defendant approaches the podium with his attorney. The people in front of him are the Judge, court reporter, and the court clerk. To his side is the jury box full of the other men and women (mostly men and women of color) dressed in blue and red jumpsuits. They’re waiting for their case to be called. The people behind him are separated from right to left. One side includes the prosecutor(s), victims, and the victim’s advocates who are all involved in the many cases to be called that day. The other side consists of family members and loved-ones of those people in blue and red jumpsuits awaiting their turn.

The defense attorney addresses mitigation. About how the 7-year statute-of-limitations allowed for the case to be charged several years after the client has remained sober, had children, and become gainfully employed. The prosecutor makes an oral argument advocating for a 4.5-year prison sentence for a victimless, substance-related offense. The defendant turns around in search of the prosecutor’s eyes. The bailiff slowly approaches. Gesturing with his fingers, he forcefully tells the defendant to face forward. How dare he turn to face the person seeking that he be housed like an animal for four-and-a-half years. The bailiff fears he might become violent. If the defendant can see the prosecutor, he can plan his attack. He would never become violent though. Not him, but others like him. He has too much to lose: children, a wife, his job. Oh wait. What’s left now?

Before the Judge imposes sentence, the room is silent except for the clinking of metal cuffs. Usually, that noise is from the chained and cuffed inmates in the jury box, restlessly waiting through the dozens of cases before and after theirs. But, this time, the noise is coming from the bailiff who is preparing to use his department-issued cuffs on the defendant. Confined by guideline sentencing and political agendas, the Judge imposes the presumptive term of 4.5 years in the Department of Corrections. The room fills with sounds of gasping and sobbing. The bailiff moves in swiftly to put the defendant’s hands behind his back. This startles him. He knew he’d be taken into custody that day, but he thought he’d at least be able to hug his family. The defense attorney asks if he has any personal belongings he’d like to give his family. He asks if he can give them a hug and kiss goodbye. The defense attorney looks to the bailiff for an answer. Without making eye contact, the bailiff responds shaking his head no. Instead, the defendant hands his attorney his cell phone and wallet.