Having spent over a month with the Washtenaw County Office of the Public Defender, I have established some degree of familiarity with the day-to-day operations of the office, the county’s criminal justice system, and my roles and responsibilities as an intern. In turn, my preconceptions and assumptions about the role of a public defender have been both affirmed and challenged during my short time here.
One of the universal and constant challenges of working as (or, in my case, for) a public defender is the sense that regardless of how effectively and earnestly you represent your clients, our system of criminal justice, both on the micro- and macro-level, is antagonistic towards poor and working-class people, proliferates recidivism, and reinforces distrust between communities, law enforcement, and the legal system. As an intern, the smallest victories give me immense internal satisfaction, and my awareness of our misguided and broken criminal justice system only galvanizes my determination to fight for our clients and their interests.
Despite the seemingly bleak context in which public defenders operate, there have been many fulfilling and powerful moments for myself, my supervisor, and the other interns with whom I work. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when my suggestion of a particular defense spurred my supervisor to follow my suggestion, which led to our client receiving probation rather than 90 days in jail.
Although my work on various cases has exposed me to grim circumstances and situations, it truly has been, and continues to be, an honor to represent our clients. In striving to highlight their humanity and dignity despite their past actions, I feel as though they have also made me a more open-minded, nuanced, and empathetic human being.