Take-aways from an Incredible Internship at PDS

Are you interested in an investigative internship at PDS? Do it. If you’re thinking of going into law and want an experience that requires you to think on your feet, this internship is for you.
Is there anything I wish I knew at the beginning? Not really – this experience was a process that had to happen to me in due time. I’ve seen things, I’ve heard things, and I’ve felt things that I would have never expected. This summer I was born like a giraffe – dropped straight to the ground and quickly taught how to stand. That isn’t to say there isn’t training – we’re taught from the very beginning how to take statements, serve subpoenas, etc. But the advice I would give to someone pursuing an opportunity at PDS is related: expect the unexpected. Sure, it’s also good to read up on the criminal justice system, the lifetime of a case, etc., but ultimately there’s no real way to prepare for intensive experience that is the criminal law internship at PDS.
The lobby at PDS, where we take walk-ins.
In terms of social justice, my eyes have been pried so far open I’ve been blinded by the sunlight, so to speak. I’ve seen poverty–real, awful poverty–right here in DC. Like the kind of poverty where children don’t have mattresses to sleep on, where flakes of paint containing lead regularly chip off the walls, and where corn flakes are for dinner without debate. I’ve seen segregation, both by race and class – segregation so stark it makes you cringe, segregation so stark that you question whether the era of Jim Crow already ended. Within DC in particular the disparity could not be more obvious. In certain neighborhoods in the Northwest quadrant, you see enormous mansions, and white people predominate. It’s rare that you seen a black person. Cross the Anacostia River south and that world flips on its head: everyone is black, the poverty rate and crime rates skyrocket, and life-expectancy nearly cuts in half. It’s a sad, sad reality.
I’ve also learned about the horrors that constitute our jails and prisons. I’ve spoken to inmates, listened to jail calls, and heard less-than-flattering stories – stories you can only laugh at or else you’ll cry. I’ve seen autopsy reports. Crime scene photos. Gruesome, sickening wounds no one should ever have.
Most of all, I’ve learned firsthand about the systemic cycle of injustice that the invisible people of our communities continue to endure, even now, into the 21st century.
A housing complex my partner and I drove by in the field.
Whatever I end up doing, my career must involve helping these neglected people. That I know for certain. Often in their darkest hour, just charged with a crime, I want to be there to affirm to clients of a public defender office: You are not alone. Someone cares about you.
 
That brings me to the Free Minds Book Club. If nothing else, look them up and see the incredible work they do. Free Minds is an organization that facilitates the reading of books and writing of poetry by juveniles who are charged as adults (usually for a severe crime) and incarcerated in jail or prison. It turns out writing is a powerful, powerful medium for people to express themselves. Free Minds came to our office this week, and we got the opportunity to offer compliments and feedback on inmates’ poems. It was moving to read the poems of incarcerated children – to see them reach such depth and become so vulnerable for the strangers who they knew would read their poems.
In closing, I thank you for reading. This summer has been a whirlwind. If you’re thinking about law, intern at PDS. ​

Hands-On Growth Outside the Classroom at PDS

Interning as an investigator at PDS has been the most dive-into-the-water type of educational experience I’ve ever had. Not only have I learned about the criminal justice system at large, but how it affects people every day. That’s the virtue of interacting directly with clients, as I’ve had the unique opportunity to do during the internship.
I’ve also learned a lot about myself. One thing is that this work excites me like nothing else. Sure, public defense is urgent and exhausting. Sure, it’s sometimes menial and often bureaucratic. But I’ll tell you, it’s never dull, rarely boring, and incredibly fulfilling. Because doing this work you realize that you’re helping people in a way that they can’t help themselves. You’re showing up during some of the worst times in their life and, with your pen for a sword, affirming the truth that people are not defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
In front of the Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters, where we routinely get police documents.
Another huge benefit of the internship is constant exposure to the criminal justice system. One thing is that I can confidently say that I’ve come to understand the lifetime of a criminal case. From the preliminary hearing to voir dire to trial, being at PDS has given me a chance to contribute to many parts of the process.
Strong interpersonal skills, too, have been tremendously important for this position, and I’ve definitely grown in this area as a result of the internship. To be articulate and convey information in a succinct and meaningful way is the bottom line of effective communication, and whether it be in speaking or writing the internship has definitely demanded a refinement of this skill. Listening is also crucial; why do you think we have two ears but only one mouth? This is true regarding communication with attorneys and investigators, as well as clients and the public. Being an expert in communication is something I will continue to develop at Brandeis academically, and I have no doubt it will help me greatly in whatever career I ultimately choose to pursue.
What’s piqued my interest as well are the legal aspects of public defense. Such aspects include developing theories of defense, writing motions, and performing legal research. These tasks are typically only done by attorneys and law clerks, and knowing that has made me excited about law school and what’s to come.
In front of DC’s Court of Appeals.
But regardless of which area of public defense I’m engaged in – investigations or legal – I know critical thinking will be involved. That’s what keeps me coming back, in brief the fact that there are multiple avenues of defense and it’s our job to pick one and make it stick.
What I’ve said thus far is all to suggest that public defense is, more or less, fun and challenging. And it is. But for me there’s also been a shell-shock aspect. Dire poverty and terrible injustice are things you encounter almost every week on the job. And to be frank, it’s been eye-opening and maturing in a way that no other experience has been. It’s yelled at me face-to-face: “there’s incredible need in the world, even right here in your backyard, and you better do something about it.” It’s a sad acknowledgement but also motivating. It’s the need that lights my fire, and that’s why I’ve also had the inspiring opportunity to volunteer at a church here in DC on some Monday mornings, where we serve some 70-80 homeless people breakfast.
To conclude, my experience at PDS has been extraordinary in that it’s helped me clarify much of what was previously up in the air. I have a better sense of what I’m good at and where I need to improve, and hopefully, what I want to do.
See you next week,
Andrew

Defending with Diligence and Zeal

Attorneys practicing in DC and other states are obligated by local bar associations to adhere to certain rules of professional conduct. One of the most pressing requirements is to defend one’s client with “diligence and zeal.” We take this very seriously at PDS, where all our work is client-centered. By this I mean that the client makes all the important decisions. After all, we do work for them.

 

One place where we see this play out is within the context of plea deals. Even if a certain deal is clearly unfavorable to the client, PDS attorneys (and others) must inform him or her of the deal and its repercussions. And, while we’re always willing to take a case to trial, the client invariably has the final say.

 

At PDS, defending our clients zealously is our main objective, and we accomplish this in a variety of ways. First and foremost, we investigate, leaving no stone unturned. Sometimes this means virtually the entire organization listening to hours of jail calls, and other times it means canvassing a crime scene for witnesses late at night or early in the morning. Whatever it takes to gather the facts of case, we do it, from a deep appreciation that many times we are our client’s only voice before the prosecution’s charges.

 

Our attorneys also file motions and submit documents on our client’s behalf, often balancing the fine line between annoying the judge and acting zealously. Although as an Intern Investigator I work on the fact-finding side of cases, I’ve also been provided the opportunity through my assigned attorneys to learn about the legal side.

 

Working in PDS’s civil division has also afforded me a view of housing, employment and custody issues. Typically, the civil cases we handle are in some way related to a client’s criminal case. And, like with criminal cases, our goal is advocate for our client as zealously as possible.

 

In custody cases, this may mean providing a story to the judge why our client is the best fit to have legal and/or physical custody. With housing cases, this may mean preventing a client’s eviction by gathering funds from local churches, or arguing in court that the landlord has no due ground by which to evict. For employment cases, we might argue that our client was wrongfully fired, for example if he or she was fired due to criminal charges that were dismissed.

 

All of this is to say that we help our clients, many of whom are members of marginalized communities, to navigate complicated bureaucratic procedures and maintain their dignity in the face of some of the worst circumstances of their life. The best part is that as an Intern Investigator, I’m a full and important part of the team, doing work every day on behalf of the people who need it most.

 


One of our neighbors at PDS, the US Capitol building. 
Two of our other neighbors, the Navy Memorial and Archives Building, which contains the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. 

Learning about Criminal Justice Reform at the DC Public Defender Service

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.

Our office on Indiana Ave, NW.

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 Invaluable Work of Public Defense

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.

I chose this position as an experiment in law. After pivoting away from business last year, I figured an immersive foray into the legal field would help me determine whether I want to pursue such a career. Six weeks into my internship, I’m definitely considering it. The work here is proving to be a great fit for my skills and interests, and the fact that I’m always learning doesn’t hurt. Also, it’s challenging, which is absolutely a personal requirement for the career I ultimately choose to enter. Public defense is sometimes spontaneous and urgent, sometimes calculated and deliberate, and it is that diversity of experience which I’ve come to nothing short of love.
 Our role as investigators is primarily to fact-find and to gather as much evidence as possible to enable our attorney to provide the best possible legal representation for our clients. Every day is different. Just to get an idea, here are some of the most exciting tasks we do fairly regularly: interview clients in jail and in the field to hear their side of the story; assist our attorneys in developing questions and theories of defense; obtain character letters and educational records for sentencing; serve subpoenas; draft memos, pull surveillance footage; canvass for witnesses; and, of course, watch our attorneys and others in court. There is really never a dull day on the job.
One of the best parts of the internship is client and community interaction – working in the field to gather information and help bolster our case. It’s the nature of our work that we encounter people during some of the worst times in their life, so it’s quite the privilege to be able to help them during these dark hours. And, as always, this requires being a zealous advocate on the client’s behalf – doing everything we possibly can to best defend him or her.
The DC Superior Courthouse, where PDS tries most of its 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