In the little municipality just north of my office, they have court twice a week. Once a week, I am the public defender assigned to the defendants coming through. But only if they ask. So often people will come in, go to the city prosecutor or the judge, admit things they shouldn't admit, say things they shouldn't say and agree to things they should not agree to. The prosecutor or judge will allow these defendants to enter into these pleas because they are not getting jail time...yet.
Fast forward three, six or nine months and Ms. Thomas has failed to do something and she has been ordered to come back before the court. Since she is NOW facing jail time for contempt, the public defender is appointed. Five minutes after I am appointed I speak with Ms. Thomas, review her file and find out what happened. Often the conversation is like the last ten I have had with clients in her same predicament:
Me: Ms. Thomas did you realize you were ordered to do X?
Ms. Thomas: No ma'am, I didn't know that.
Me: Right here you signed that you read this and understood the judge ordered you to do X?
Ms. Thomas: I can't do that?
Me: Why didn't you do X Ms. Thomas and why can't you do it if I can get the judge to give you a little more time to comply?
Ms. Thomas: I am disabled/I don't have transportation/I have a new baby at home/My job won't let me off/I lost my job right before that court date/I just got a job yesterday/My husband just died/I am ineligible to get my license back/und so weiter.
The significance of Ms. Thomas' last statement? She cannot comply with what the judge ordered her to do. She could not comply when it was ordered and no amount of yelling, demanding or ordering from the judge is going to make her comply. Had I been appointed at the beginning of her case, I could have had the above conversation with her earlier, and we could have avoided the ten, fifteen or thirty days in jail the judge is now demanding. Had I been appointed earlier, I could have requested the court allow Ms. Thomas do something in place of what she could not do so that she is not held in contempt later.
I need my glasses to see. I don't mean that without my glasses the world becomes a black void, but you do not want to ride in a vehicle with me at night if I do not have my glasses on and I do not know where I am going. Since I need my glasses in order to see, if I do not have them on, no amount of yelling, demanding or ordering me to read something posted on the wall ten feet cross the room will help make it happen. If you want me to do what you order me to do then I need my glasses.
For my clients, I am the glasses. If one of the things Ms. Thomas was ordered to do was enroll in a court referral program that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $700, but she is a single mother with 2 kids, and a full-time job that only pays minimum wage, she can't do it. Even if she could, she cannot do it in the time period that the judge has ordered her to do it. No amount of yelling, demanding or ordering is going to make her pay it and if she had been afforded the opportunity to place her glasses on earlier, she wouldn't be in the mess she is in. A mess that the court placed her in.
I have grown to love my job, I have grown to empathize with my clients but I have grown to detest certain officers of the court. I had a prosecutor tell me once that he didn't even want the defendants money any more, he wanted "her ass" [to serve time in jail]. Her charge? Making an improper turn and not having her insurance card on her at the time she was pulled over. He was pissed off because she never paid the ticket. When she was finally located, he didn't want the ticket paid. When I asked him what he would 'get' out of having "her ass" he just looked at me and walked away.
I know that I will not do this for the duration of my career, I have things that I want to do for myself and my family that requires more than a public servants salary will allow. But before I whisk my daughters off to Italy or take my brother back to the beautiful German city where he was born, there are so many others that need to see. There are so many others that are being allowed to enter into pleas that they cannot comply with. There are SO many more people that need glasses.
I am the glasses.
(Thank you to EEG for helping me see my role as the glasses.)
Until next time,
Be blessed, be careful, don't confess and don't consent.