The Public Interest Law Project stipend helped fund my summer as a Certified Law Student in Washington County. The mission of Metropolitan Public Defender is to provide quality legal representation to those unable to afford an attorney. To this, I had the opportunity to represent clients in every aspect of their criminal case. I had a caseload of about twenty clients charged with various misdemeanors. Providing representation to criminal defendants has been an eye-opening and humbling experience made possible by the Public Interest Law Project stipend. The stipend gave me an opportunity to develop practical legal skills in the context of service work. Metropolitan Public Defender provides representation as a court-appointed attorney to criminal defendants who are unable to afford a private attorney. As a Certified Law Student, I had a traditional attorney-client relationship with those clients. I reviewed their cases, spotted legal issues and possible defenses, worked with investigators, negotiated with DAs, wrote pre-trial motions, and took cases to trial. These experiences were invaluable in developing my legal skills in client management, legal researching and writing, and oral advocacy. It was then so rewarding to use those skills directly and tangibly to achieve significant positive outcomes for my clients.
Working in indigent defense was an eye-opening experience to how poverty and mental illness connect with the criminal justice system. Particularly at the misdemeanor level, I saw how the lived realities of poverty and mental illness could lead to criminally culpable behavior. I also saw how inadequate and inappropriate a criminal charge, jail, and fines are at addressing those causes. For example, how homelessness leads to a criminal trespass charge. That charge then leads to jail time and court fees that the defendant has no hope of paying. Those unpaid fees go to the department of collections where it gets a service fine and is charged interest until it is paid. Thus, a $500 court fee turns into a $1000 tax liability. Fighting against outcomes such as this has been both rewarding and challenging
The most unexpected aspects of my experience was learning how criminal defense attorneys are the only institutional position in the criminal justice system whose role it is to see defendants as more than whatever they are accused. A significant part of defense work is spending time with your clients getting to know them and to finding out what is happening in their life. All this information helps in plea negotiations and sentencing. It is a humbling experience to sit with someone who is going through an incredibly painful, scary, and humiliating experience and to honor their humanity.