As a Philosophy major, there isn’t much I’ve learned in that department that translates directly into what I’m doing this summer at the DC Public Defender Service [PDS]. That said, the type of thinking I’ve come to develop at Brandeis has been crucial for my investigatory position.
Much of what I’m doing is problem solving – whether it be navigating the bureaucracy of the US Marshal Service or figuring out how to charm myself into getting a statement from a witness in the field. Some of the internship also involves critical thinking in the sense that we need to figure out, under the circumstances, how best to defend our client.
The most common theories of defenses we pursue fall into one of a few categories: fabrication, misidentification, mere presence, or self-defense. Depending on the evidence, we’ll choose a theory and present that as our version of the case events to the judge and/or jury. There’s no doubt that my experience in the Philosophy department has prepared me well to think about and make effective arguments. Being able to apply those skills on the ground in a way that effects people’s lives is a remarkable opportunity.
The social justice issues I’m learning about – mass incarceration and criminal justice reform – are topics that I’m only now, at PDS, starting to grasp. While the organization is not policy-oriented, interning here has allowed me daily exposure to some of the injustices that plague the criminal justice system. One area that has particularly interested me is mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug crimes. It’s something that’s been discussed – how draconian these minimums are, how much discretion they remove from the hands of judges, and how they disproportionately affect the African American community. Of course, not every drug case is negatively affected by these minimums, but learning about them has certainly allowed me to contextualize much of the work that I’m doing.
Mass incarnation is another issue I’m becoming particularly passionate about as a result of my learning and experience at PDS. Until I started doing research, I had no idea how extreme the issue really was. Did you know that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world? According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 2.3 million adults are currently incarcerated in the US – about one of every 110 residents. It is a number that has more than quadrupled since the War on Drugs was first waged by President Nixon in the 1970s.
What’s worse, felony convictions don’t disappear after a convict has served his or her time in prison. To the contrary, such a conviction stays with people for life, and prevents them from accessing many fundamental services and being full-fledged members of our community. Just to get an idea, convicted felons can’t live in public housing, receive public social benefits, vote, or travel abroad. What this effectively means is that a ten-year sentence doesn’t end after ten years. I’m not sure if it ends at all.
Having these ideas in mind, many of which I first heard of at Brandeis, has allowed me to realize the vital role PDS plays in the criminal justice system. Without public defenders, there’s no doubt the system would be far less just.
The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) is a federally funded organization that represents indigent adults and minors accused of serious crimes in DC. The organization was established in 1970 under a federal statue that stipulated under the 6th amendment that the government provide counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney. As a model public defender, PDS typically handles the most serious felony cases in the district.
This summer, I am an intern investigator working alongside two attorneys, one in the Trial Division and one in the Civil Legal Services Division. Despite the fact that I’ve only been working for a few weeks, I’ve already had the opportunity to work a variety of cases including misdemeanor assaults, custody, housing, and drug cases.
Public defenders are crucial to maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system. One’s income cannot and should not determine whether they have quality legal representation in court. While PDS is not a criminal justice reform or civil rights organization, we certainly do a substantial amount of important work in both of those areas, first and foremost by fighting zealously for our clients. And if that means taking the case to trial, we’re not afraid to do so. In fact, PDS has won acquittals on all significant charges in more than 50 percent of its trial cases since October 2011, a value considerably higher than even the performance of much private counsel.
By the summer’s end, I will have a more in-depth view of the criminal justice system and the communities we serve. While I am learning an incredible amount professionally, working at PDS is also a deeply humbling and personal experience. It’s exposing me to a part of our world I didn’t know existed, and is starting to empower me as the voice of the voiceless. Public defense is not easy work by any stretch of measure, but it’s fun, especially for an adrenaline-junkie like me, and profoundly rewarding.
I’m truly overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work firsthand in public defense. Is there anything better than using your mind for good?
Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to reach out.
Until next week,
Andrew Jacobson, ’19