Hometown: Canton, Michigan
Agency: Public Defender Service, Washington D.C.
What did you enjoy most about the internship?
I really enjoyed the opportunity to actively engage in my first internship that relates directly to my desire to practice law. Washington D.C. is such an inspirational city and unique in its status as the host of both America's leaders and a significant impoverished population.
What was the greatest challenge?
Two of the greatest challenges that I encountered were working around bureaucratic deficiencies and interacting with untrusting individuals. As an intern and as someone associated with PDS, it was often difficult to gather documents and information that might potentially help our clients because they are held by the government. Other times, it was difficult to contact and interview witnesses or anyone at all associated with the investigation for a case because these individuals are wary about the justice system. They have a set of acceptable behavior and rules specific to their environment.
What was the greatest lesson you learned through your experience?
The greatest lesson that I learned through my experience is that our indigent clients are at a disadvantage in the eyes of the justice system. There are weaknesses in the system that common Americans hold in such high standing, above all others in the world. With many cases, there is no right or wrong, there is only sufficient or insufficient as deemed by the select members of the jury.
How might the internship affect your career path?
This internship has helped me become more confident and determined to pursue a career in law. I am much more open to the idea of practicing criminal defense and utilizing my understanding of investigations to facilitate client communication, empathy and advocacy in the courtroom.
A Shepherd Alliance Internship means a summer of pushing the boundaries of an impressionable student's comfort zone. It means eight weeks of immersion into the conditions that millions of Americans must adapt to just for one more day of survival. Students live on a budget, reside in some of the most dangerous places in America, and dedicate their efforts to the success of their host organizations. Most importantly, interns work with role models who dedicate their lives to mollify the consequences of poverty and to make emotional connections with the very children, adults, seniors of all races and ethnicities that we learn about in Poverty 101. Ideally, a Shepherd intern concludes the program with lessons and reflections forever etched into their mind, so that those ideals can subconsciously influence future actions and decisions. Amazingly and fortunately, I felt the impact of all these expectations during my experience at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS).
My experience in D.C. was limited to the sights that isolate tourists to only the most memorable, proudest, most patriotic displays of our nation's history and service. I was blind to the plight of crime and dangers on the streets, where fourteen-year-old mothers struggle to maneuver a toothless baby in a stroller around the cracks and unevenness in the sidewalk and where groups of young men suspiciously eye those that do not have the same street smarts as them. Within a couple of days at PDS, I heard more stories about murders, sexual assaults, assaults with deadly weapons and robberies than I have my entire life. These are told by the investigators and attorneys that have clients with primary experience with these crimes. At the same time, I knew that I was meeting some of the best people who work to protect the liberty that each citizen is supposedly guaranteed. The Public Defender Service is a model organization to others of its kind, as evidenced by its influence on all aspects of the justice system and its caseload (complete with a large number of high profile cases.) There are numerous divisions within the organization and for the period of my Shepherd Internship, I was placed in the Community Development Division (CDD) as an intern investigator.
The Community Defender Division has three specific programs that focus on helping clients assimilate back into the community after incarceration, from a halfway house, probation or another consequence of an alleged crime. My responsibilities were to Institutional Services and Community Reentry. Institutional Services protects the legal rights of clients that are currently incarcerated at a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility. My primary responsibility was to handle disciplinary reports for Class I offenses, which include anything from a stabbing to a riot to possession of contraband. When we received reports from any inmate convicted of any type of crime, my partner and I ran a few database checks to learn more about the client and his situation. We interviewed the client, witnesses and complainant in the Central Detention Facility, then write a memo to a law clerk to use to prepare an argument given in front of the disciplinary hearing board. I took advantage of these visits to converse with the inmates about their family, backgrounds and future in an attempt to better understand this world where the impoverished are the majority and crimes are committed for honor and protection, albeit selfishly.
These conversations were some of the most influential moments of my experience and were so rare for a poverty studies student interested in the intertwining relationship between poverty and law. I learned that many attribute their current state to lack of family support and the unhealthy friendships that they naively trusted. They did not trust law enforcement, for obvious reasons, and the incarceration system made no corrections to their mindset. For example, the disciplinary board consisted of officers selected by the warden, so there was a natural bias despite instructions to make a judgment based on the evidence. On the rare occasion that an inmate was found not guilty, it was usually due to a technicality. Many of our clients told us that we should request security footage, but those requests are rarely granted by the jail. Other times, witnesses refused to speak with us because they were reluctant to get involved for fear of being labeled as a "snitch," possibly the worst crime among inmates and residents of the communities that they came from. Despite these disadvantages, all the attorneys and clerks attacked these cases and treated their clients with an admirable intensity. The Community Reentry Program addresses the legal and social needs of previously incarcerated individuals to improve a life weighted down by a criminal history. Two of the most important legal services included expungement of records and correction of documents. My responsibilities included locating case jackets and records, extracting them from bureaucratic control and finally, investigating cases for evidentiary hearings. When a client wished to expunge his charge or conviction and the case met all requirements, we prepared for an evidentiary hearing during which the defense had to provide enough evidence to meet a judge's reasonable doubt that the accused was responsible for the alleged crime. We had two particular cases this summer, so my partner and I interviewed witnesses, took statements, read through boxes of prior cases, drafted and submitted official requests to the government and gathered background information.
After eight weeks and with great difficulty, I altered my attitude that our justice system should be admired and protected to maintain its place on a gilded pedestal. There are many problems and policies that place indigent adults and juveniles at a disadvantage. The accused have the obligation to prove their innocence in evidentiary hearings. No longer does "innocent until proven guilty" have a dominant place in that courtroom. Boards that consist of employees who work with the officers that filed the disciplinary report have the power to decide whether or not an inmate must spend 23 hours in segregation for months. U.S. attorneys can offer amnesty, a lower sentence or protection to convince witnesses to become government witnesses, whereas PDS must rely on the strength of a person's sense of duty. The crime-ridden streets of D.C. seem to be a completely different world with their own culture and language. It is not uncommon that a witness asks, "which shooting are you talking about? Which night?" People rarely know the real names of their friends because to them, your name is your livelihood, to be kept a secret for protection. Despite these issues, there is no doubt in my mind that PDS represents a portion of the metal beam that holds the weights of the symbol of justice in perfect balance. The attorneys and investigators are familiar with their clients and they understand the culture and environment that the poor endure. They exert extra effort to develop this type of relationship because they actively work to improve the community through involvement in a variety of organizations and philanthropic services. When the entire system is adamant about a client's guilt, a PDS attorney will stand by the person with steadfast commitment. These attorneys do not work the kind of hours that they do and make the extra effort to humanize the experience for the accused because they want fame or money. They dedicate their lives because they have to be the champions of liberty, as is the organization's motto.