Public Defenders Have Their Say

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Public defenders protect the constitutional rights of poor defendants charged with crimes. But they're overworked and under-respected. Farai Chideya speaks with Rick Jones — deputy director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS) — and Brian Wait, Senior Public Defender in the Orange County Public Defender's Office.


This is News & Notes, I'm Farai Chideya. You've seen them on TV. They are overworked and underpaid and their clients aren't always lovable. We're talking about public defenders the lawyers courts provide when a defendant can't afford to hire one. A disproportionate number of African-Americans find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. Often it's these lawyers who fight to protect their Constitutional right to a fair trial. We continue our month-long series on criminal justice with a look at public defenders. For some answers, we go to the source. Rick Jones is deputy director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. He also teaches at Columbia law school. Thanks for coming on.

Mr. RICK JONES (Deputy Director, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem): You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: So you help run a non-profit organization that provides free legal representation. You also defend criminal cases, but you get housing, employment and other civil cases. What really is your approach to dealing with what must be a high volume of different types of cases?

Mr. JONES: Well, my office is located, our principle office is located on 125th street, right there at the corner of 125th and Lennox. And we are - the way that we operate is holistically. We represent people who live in northern Manhattan, north of 96th street. east, west central Harlem. Washington Heights, Inwood. And we represent folks, the main way that people come to us is because they have a criminal case or they suspect they are about to be arrested. We encourage people to come to us as early in the process as we can - as they can so that we can interceded on their behalf. Take them to the precinct, be with them during the booking process, make sure that their Constitutional rights are protected.

But we also represent in what we call collateral consequences litigation. So, if for example Junior gets arrested for suspicion of selling drugs, say, in the lobby of Grandma's apartment and it's public housing and they want to evict Grandma from her housing, we'll represent Grandma in housing court. Or if Mom gets arrested and as a result of just the arrest, they want to move in family court to take the children away, we'll go to family court and try to protect her parental rights.

So we do - we not only represent people in the criminal cases, but oftentimes the collateral consequences of arrests are as important, losing your home, losing your family and so we'll go wherever the client needs us to go. And we also try to be a part of the community that we serve. So we have after-school programs, we teach in the schools, we go out to community groups. We really want to be a good citizen and a good neighbor in the Harlem community.

CHIDEYA: Rick, I was reading that some public defenders get paid as little as 40,000 dollars for their first job. Now, law school loans have got to be a lot more than 40,000 dollars for many people. I don't know what your organization pays, I'm not going to ask you, but when you have a situation where many people are being paid extremely poorly to represent clients and to represent a lot of them, is it a danger that they won't be able to do a good job?

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, I have to tell you, when I started as a public defender almost 20 years ago, I guess, I probably made 18, 20,000 dollars a year. But folks don't go into being public defenders, I don't think, principally to get rich. And I think that the majority of people who become public defenders really didn't go to law school because they were pursuing profit. They want to serve, they want to help, they want to be part of change, they want to be part of making their communities and their societies and their world better. And they understand that we live in a society that isn't always fair and isn't always just and doesn't always dispense justice evenly and fairly, and so they want to be a part of the solution.

CHIDEYA: Well, Rick, let me just bring in, we have another guest with us. Brian Wait, he is a senior public defender in the Orange County Public Defender's Office. So, Brian, you, I understand, are actually in court right now. What are you doing today?

Mr. BRIAN WAIT (Senior Public Defender, Orange County Public Defender's Office): Good morning - yes I am in court today I'm actually in trial on a serious multiple-count like case right now.

CHIDEYA: Tell me, you don't have to tell me the specifics of the case, but how much time is, for example, the case that you're working on now taking you? How much time in the office, how much time in the court, and what kind of caseload are you working right now?

Mr. WAIT: Well, this particular case I've been working on for, personally been working on, for over a year. It was assigned previously to a different public defender until that public defender left and I was assigned the case and I've been working with the case for about a year, preparing it to go to trial today. This particular case is going to be about a two-and-a-half-week case, actual trial time. Our case load - and I can only speak for Orange County, because as I understand, different counties have different management styles in terms of how they assign cases to their deputy public defenders.

But in Orange County, the public defenders are given a caseload that's presumed to be consistent with their talents and their experience in the courtroom and so forth. And we do as individuals in Orange County have the ability to tell our immediate supervisors and so forth that we don't want any more cases, or we have enough cases, or we don't want a particular type of case because of our ability - our perceived ability to handle a particular case.

CHIDEYA: So Brian, I'm going to ask you this and then ask Rick. How are your clients? And what I mean is, when you tell your client, OK, this is the best course of action in general do people listen to you, do they fight you? I mean there have been cases in televised trials where people say, I don't want a defender. I'm going to represent myself in court. Are you generally dealing with people who are willing to take your advice, or not always?

Mr. WAIT: Well, I think one of the things that is true, as a public defender working with a client, which is true in almost anything is that you have to develop a relationship with the client. And that relationship is going to take time. And you need to, as the public defender, invest the time necessary to gain the trust of your client. Let them - your client, that is - understand that you are completely familiar with the facts of their case and you are there to do the very best you can to help them in the situation that they find themselves. And when you take that time - and sometimes that time is going to be months, sometimes it may even take years to develop that relationship. But at the end of the day, the only thing that you can hope for is that the client will have developed a confidence and faith in you that they will be willing to trust your advice and direction. Ultimately, the final decision in terms of whether to take an offer, go to trial and so forth belongs to the client. But trust is a extremely important.

CHIDEYA: Let me get get Rick in and also throw the same question at you about do your clients or follow your advice, but also in terms of the racial issues with particularly African-Americans and often a lack of trust in the criminal justice system. How does that affect your work?

Mr. JONES: I mean, I think Brian is largely right. You really have to work very hard at building trust issues and developing trust with your client. We, in my office, a substantial portion of our work is retained, that means clients walk in off the street and ask for our representation, or they call us on the phone, say my son just got arrested, he's at the 32nd precinct. Could you go down there? And we do, and like I said, we intercede on their behalf. And so that goes a long way in fostering the trust issue right off the bat. A lot of more traditional public defenders, they're assigned by the court. The first time they meet their client he's potentially been locked up for a number of hours or days and is in a bad mood. So they have to do a lot of work up front to build that trust.

The other thing that I think is important is, you know, like the guy before was saying about the RAND study. You have to treat people with respect, people want to be treated with respect. And you have to have good listening skills and you also have to say what you mean and mean what you say and then do it. If you tell your client, I'm going to be back on Tuesday, be back on Tuesday,. If you tell him, I'm going to file this motion, file that motion. If you tell him, I'm going to talk to your mom and tell her what's going on, make sure you talk to the mom and tell them what's going on. You have to work on building the relationship and building the confidence and building the trust. So that when you get to those tough points in the case when you have to make difficult decisions and you are called upon to council your client, they believe in you, they trust in you they have faith in you and they are more likely to be willing to work with you and to listen to you if you've done the hard work of establishing and building that relationship.

Let me just say one other thing about the money thing. I don't want you to get the misperception that public defenders are walking around taking vows of poverty, because they're not. They are overworked and they're under-funded and they need loan forgiveness programs across the board. They need higher salaries. We need more resources. We need a greater will on the part of the elected officials to fund adequately this very, very important part of our society, which is indigent defense.

CHIDEYA: All right. Just time for one more thing from you, Brian. When you think about the work that you do, I'm sure that you have to deal with a lot of people who have committed crimes, and I know that it's part of the tenet of the law that everyone needs representation. Do you ever get any push-back from either people in the community or other people who are concerned about the types of clients you represent?

Mr. WAIT: All the time. All the time. And the unfortunate thing about our business is that too often I do hear from the community the standard question, how can you represent those people? The presumption being that anyone who is arrested by the police must be guilty. In fact, I've recall, was it yesterday, I believe, I was talking to an individual and indicated that the type of case that I was currently in trial in, which is a - it's an allegation of sexual molestation. And the person said to me, oh, so your client is a child molester? And I said, well, no. There is a difference between being something and being accused of something. But I'm not clear all the time that the community immediately recognizes that distinction.

CHIDEYA: It must make your job tough sometimes. But we - please, go ahead.

Mr. WAIT: Well, yes, it does. Because you are fighting that perception immediately the moment that the jury comes into the court room, the moment they take their seat. They frequently start with the proposition, the client is guilty now. What do we need to do to make sure this person is convicted?

CHIDEYA: Well, we have to end it there unfortunately. But I want to thank you both. Rick, Brian, appreciate it.

Mr. WAIT: Thank you very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Rick Jones is deputy director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. He also teaches at Columbia Law School, and joined us from NPR's New York bureau. And Brian Wait is a senior public defender in the Orange County Public Defender's Office.

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