Yesterday, I began my internship at the Washtenaw County Public Defender’s Office. It didn’t take long for me to realize much of the experience would be garnered from “learning on the job.” The moment I entered my attorney’s office that is mentoring me, she began reviewing the docket, entailing the stories of and charges against client after client. Though the charges varied from driving without a license to murder, the greatest commonality our clients had was twofold; members of a low socioeconomic status, and drug use. It was disheartening to hear how many of our clients were repeated offenders – some had up to ten previous misdemeanors. Others couldn’t resolve one case before they were already charged with another. We spoke to many of these clients on the phone, reminding them of their upcoming court date and reading them the circumstances of their case: $3500 in court and other legal fees, three years on parole, plea bargains offered, mandatory drug testing. For us, as public defenders, we simply were doing our jobs. As clients, our words and ability to adequately and effectively execute our duty as their representative put the very future of their lives in the balance.
Later in the day, we visited the jail and spoke to more clients. I found myself feeling guiltily uneasy and unsafe. I had never been to a jail before, and as a young woman, being in a small room alone with a man charged for nearly killing his girlfriend as a result of beating her so hard was chilling.
I can already see, given the agency and exposure the Public Defender offers its interns, that this experience will greatly help to answer my questions about whether or not I want to become a defense attorney (or a lawyer at all). Within a seven hour period, I already began to question the morality of both the prosecutor and the defense attorney. My doubt in the effectiveness of the United States criminal justice system increased, my confusion as to the best possible way to help people doubled. While I may not feel ready for what is in store for me at this internship, I look forward to learning more about the process of law and how I might fight in it.