A big obstacle for me has been understanding the role of the public defender and what function morality plays in our involvement of the criminal justice system. The thoughts are varied and culminate to a grand view that is incredibly inconclusive. 95% of our clients take plea bargains, suggesting that the vast majority of our clients are indeed, criminals. Guilty. Learning this statistic didn’t shock or phase me. The general idea of representing guilty criminals isn’t troublesome to me, and I genuinely believe that everyone deserves adequate representation. As 95% of our cases suggest, we are often not arguing as to whether or not our client is guilty. Rather, we are fighting for lighter sentencing, fewer charges, and more second chances. Where I question the morality of the work public defenders do is when you begin to consider the implications of doing your job or representing your client really, really well.
Take a domestic violence case involving a client we’ll call Bob for instance. Bob had an incredibly unhealthy relationship with his girlfriend and was charged with domestic violence. Lucky for Bob though, he was given a very intelligent attorney and his case was heard by a very forgiving judge. Bob ended up going home with no jail time, a plea bargain we fought the judge for, despite knowing the accessibility Bob still had to his girlfriend. A few weeks later, Bob is taken in to custody again for beating his girlfriend nearly to death.
What bothers me about this situation isn’t that we represented Bob. It’s that the way in which we represented him, in my opinion, seemed irresponsible. After years in the field, these public defenders recognize the likelihood of reoffending. With no anger management courses or therapy as to how to effectively solve conflicts, Bob was sent immediately back out in to the streets, where he was able to almost take someone’s life. While I understand the public defender was simply doing their job, I feel partially responsible for the fate of Bob’s girlfriend.
I recognize this blog question questions a description of an obstacle you’ve overcome, but I am resolved to the fact that there is no clear answer to how I feel about situations like these. I want to serve society in a utilitarian way, where I represent to maximize total happiness – considering the prosecutor’s point of view, the girlfriend’s, Bob’s history, and the offense. To me, doing your job to the best of your ability doesn’t necessarily mean getting the client the least amount of time served possible – it’s about recognizing the plausibility of an immediate re-offense that could land them with even more jail time and fighting for a plea deal accordingly. The internship has caused me to critically think about law and morality in a new way, and while it may be hard I am grateful for the opportunity to rethink my point of view.