Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Diary of a Civil Public Defender: Critical Lessons for Achieving Transformative Change on Behalf of Communities

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Diary of a Civil Public Defender: Critical Lessons for Achieving Transformative Change on Behalf of Communities

Article excerpt

Introduction                                                    876 I. Lesson 1: Myth Versus Reality--Crime Is Not What You    Think It Is                                                  881     A. Criminality and the War on Drugs                         885     B. Bias by Police, Prosecutors, and Judges in the Criminal        Court Process                                            887 II. Lesson 2: Poverty Is a Pipeline to Systems Involvement      890 III. Lesson 3: No Civil Consequence Is "Collateral"             893 IV. Lesson 4: We Need a Civil Gideon                            896 V. Lesson 5: We Are All Defenders                               899 Conclusion                                                      901 


I am a civil public defender. (1) When most people think of public defenders, they do not think of me. They think of overworked, underpaid, under-resourced criminal defense attorneys who have too many cases to count; they think of the attorneys who bargain guilty pleas on behalf of their clients, and who struggle to remember one client from the next. They picture the "meet 'em, greet 'em, and plead 'em" approach--all taking place in criminal court.

As a public defender who engages in holistic defense, (2) I work utilizing a model that centers clients and acknowledges the forces that drive people into criminal court and other legal systems. Holistic defense requires collaboration across disciplines to serve clients beyond an accusation, and to mitigate against the instability that results from an arrest or other systems involvement. (3) Our clients are people, not just cases. Our focus is to radically transform how people are represented in the legal system, and to create lasting change for the communities we serve.

Civil attorneys and advocates like me work with criminal defense attorneys, social workers, investigators, family attorneys, immigration advocates, community organizers and other partners to offer vital information and creative solutions to our clients who are experiencing overwhelming crises. Working together with our clients, we fight to ensure their voices are heard and their humanity is acknowledged. I am a part of a growing group of non-criminal advocates redefining what it means to be a public defender. As holistic practice continues to gain recognition for its results, (4) there is also greater acknowledgement that we need a diversity of roles and expertise to best serve and impact communities most affected by poverty, inequity, mass criminalization and mass incarceration.

As a public defender in civil spaces, I regularly bear witness to the extended reach of systems involvement. By "systems involvement," I mean that when individuals stand accused of a crime, they are swept up in far more than the criminal court process alone. (5) Rather, they are also trapped in a web of other, equally oppressive legal systems that may affect their ability to keep a job, a home, their government benefits, their possessions, their children, or even their right to remain in the country. (6) In addition to facing criminal penalties, fees, fines and the loss of liberty, less understood are the host of civil punishments, sanctions, disqualifications and forfeitures a person who stands accused will almost certainly experience, sometimes in perpetuity. All that is needed is an accusation to trigger sometimes insurmountable consequences stemming from law enforcement contact. Regardless of whether a person fights the case, is found not guilty, pleads to a lesser charge, or gets the charges dismissed, that individual and those closest to them will suffer the unquantifiable costs and irreparable harms of justice involvement in their lives far beyond their criminal case.

In addition to seeing the ways in which criminal justice involvement leads to what is referred to as "collateral" civil consequences, every day public defenders also witness the impact of structural barriers and institutional forces. …

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