This summer I interned at Partners for Justice, a non-profit organization that operates within the Delaware Public Defender’s Office. The work of this organization is centered around advocacy on behalf of our clients who face issues with access to housing, public benefits, employment, medical care and other civil legal needs. While we can imagine what it must be like to navigate these complicated bureaucracies with little to no agency, most do not experience this often frustrating and tiresome process first-hand. This summer, I was able to see the connection between involvement in criminal legal issues and civil legal issues. I was able to witness the detrimental collateral consequences that dig our clients further into poverty.
Through working directly with clients who are not only facing criminal charges, but civil legal issues as well, I learned the importance of early intervention, holistic defense and patience. Far too often, our involvement with our clients came too late–they already had lost their home, already had lost their benefits or already had been arrested. That is why early intervention is key to prevent further consequences of being poor and slipping deeper into financial and social instability.
While all of our clients are facing criminal charges, most are forced to deal with civil legal issues as well. This is why a holistic defense–one which serves clients on their drug possession charge as well as their housing eviction–combines criminal and civil law to best serve our clients. When dealing with a legal system that emphasizes punishment and control over justice, happy outcomes are rare and come only after weeks, months or even years of advocacy. This is where patience comes in. However, this constant advocacy is necessary for any change to be possible.
During my summer internship, I had opportunities to make direct impact in our clients’ lives, as well as a more general impact on the Partners for Justice organization. I was able to work on several different projects as well as working directly with clients in the public defender’s office. I conducted research on various housing options, expungement proceedings and mental health treatment in the Delaware area, as well as research into retrieving property from police custody. This helped inform the full-time advocates so they could better serve their clients. My client work included helping develop re-entry plans for people exiting prison as well as helping various clients receive essential benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Some of my most impactful work included interviewing people for biographical information who were seeking a public defender to examine their case and to assess other civil legal issues they might be facing.
Much of this work is centered around resources. With a lack of affordable housing, job opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, or quality mental health treatment, resources can often be challenging to find. At the beginning of this internship, I found myself often lost with where to go for help with clients. However, as the summer progressed, I was able to learn in great detail about where and how to find the best resources for our clients. By developing relationships with community partners, I was able to better refer clients to community resources.
For anyone who wants to pursue a career in public defense work or civil legal aid, I’d advise them to be persistent and to try not to get dismayed by the constant injustices in the legal system. This work is often entrenched in complicated bureaucracies. It is important to be persistent when advocating for a client because any meaningful change will not come easily. This work can often be depressing, frustrating and disheartening. However, with 80% of people without access to affordable legal representation, this work is more important than ever. We must not let the everyday injustices stop us from working towards a common goal of equity and justice.