Editor’s Note: Names and details have been changed to maintain client confidentiality.


The sun was rising over the trees when I arrived at my office. I glanced at the five names that I had written on a yellow notepad, and then shoveled the files, calendar, and notepad into my briefcase. I grabbed a stack of business cards and a couple of pens, then walked two blocks to the courthouse, where I would spend the rest of the day.

The names on my notepad were all people I had been appointed to represent. Each of the five was poor, and each was, in one way or another, in trouble with the law. It was my job to help navigate them through the criminal justice system, to insure that their constitutional rights were vindicated, and to advocate on their behalf against what often seems like the limitless power and resources of the state.

I am a public defender. I primarily practice in a rural northern Minnesota county, which spans the eastern edge of Leech Lake Reservation to the southwestern portion of the Iron Range. In the two and a half years I have practiced here, I have been berated by clients who feel that I am incompetent or who feel cheated by a system that can be both unfair and unjust. Moreover, while most people seem to like the idea of public defenders, in practice their reaction can be much different. As an advocate for the same clients, I’ve been verbally attacked by judges and prosecutors alike. I’ve been called sneaky and underhanded by probation officers. I’ve been accused of lying, and I’ve had police officers ask me how I sleep at night.

Hurt feelings aside, I have also collaborated with many of the same people to achieve some very beneficial results for my clients. While familiarity can breed contempt, it is vital to the practice of efficient and effective public defense. Just as important as my legal training, my knowledge of local standards and the relationships I’ve forged with judges, prosecutors, probation officers, treatment providers, and law enforcement, though at times contentious, allow me to maintain a heavy caseload, zealously represent my clients, and focus my time and energy on those cases that need it the most.

When I arrived at the courthouse, I made my way to a conference room, where I was joined by the four other public defenders who would be handling the day’s cases. We discussed each item on the calendar and divided the previously unassigned cases. I wrote down the names of my new clients, and then went to the jail.

At the jail I met with George, and we discussed his options, which included trial, regular probation, or drug court. George lived in a town of about 800 people in the northwest corner of the county. Just days after his 18th birthday, George was sitting shotgun in his friend Bill’s SUV while Bill filled his tank at the local BP station. Resting under the seat was eight ounces of marijuana. When Bill saw the town’s chief of police walking toward him, he panicked, taking off in his truck without paying for the gas. Eight blocks down the road, the chief pulled Bill over. The chief was grilling Bill on the evils of gasoline theft when he caught a whiff of pot smoke from inside the vehicle. He searched Bill’s truck, found the marijuana, and arrested both Bill and George. George was released from jail the next day, with specific instructions not to use drugs. However, George found his freedom fleeting, especially when conditioned on chemical abstinence. Having tested positive for cocaine (George attributed this to his massive consumption of energy drinks), George was returned to jail seven days after his initial release. He would remain in jail as long as the case was pending, unable to afford the $5,000 bail.

George refused to point the finger at Bill, or anyone else for that matter, and he didn’t want to be subjected to the daily check-ins and frequent testing that came with drug court. More than anything, George wanted to get out of jail. Given his limited defenses, I told George that I would talk to the prosecutor about having him released from jail today if he agreed to plead guilty.

The next person I met with was Gabe. At 19, Gabe had been caught breaking into a gas station storage locker in order to huff propane. Although his affect resembled a Nebraska prairie, I liked Gabe. I had previously represented Gabe, both of Gabe’s parents, and Gabe’s younger brother. They never committed any serious crimes and, although they seemed to enjoy living on the fringes of the law, they were generally good-natured. Gabe’s most recent adventure with law enforcement involved using apple juice to fake a urine sample, and it had landed him in jail for 45 days.

Over the weekend, Gabe got into a fight with his cellmate. While I didn’t have any paperwork, Gabe informed me that there weren’t any defenses and that he just wanted to resolve the case as quickly and quietly as possible. I told Gabe I would try to negotiate a sentence that did not involve probation or any additional jail time. While Gabe never told me what precipitated the fight, I found out later that the fight started when his cellmate complained that Gabe wasn’t cleaning up after himself when he was done masturbating in the shower. When I heard this, all I could think about was that I wasn’t going to shake Gabe’s hand the next time I saw him.

The last person I needed to visit at the jail was Florence. Florence’s problems stemmed not only from her horrible addiction to pain medication, but from the myriad of mental health problems she had experienced throughout her lifetime.

Reading Florence’s psychological evaluation was like reading a how-to manual on the application of the DSM-IV. Still, the court-appointed psychological evaluator said that Florence was competent, and she had subsequently pled guilty to a low-level felony drug crime for changing the number on her Vicodin prescription from six to 60. Florence struggled mightily with probation, and she had just gotten kicked out of inpatient treatment. Her probation officer wanted Florence to go to prison and, while her mental health case manager opposed prison, neither she nor I had been able to secure funding for a treatment program that could meet all of Florence’s needs.

When Florence walked into the meeting room, she was surprisingly lucid, and she expressed how weary she was with treatment and probation. She had no interest in doing treatment, and seemed excited about the prospect of getting released from probation, even if it meant sitting more than six months in jail. Florence feared prison, telling me that she wanted to sit the remainder of her sentence in the county jail. I told her that we would continue her case until she had less than six months remaining on the sentence. (Under Minnesota law, people with less than six months remaining on their sentences are considered “short-term offenders.” When a short-term sentence is executed, the person serves the remainder of his or her sentence in the county jail as opposed to prison. Disclaimer: To anyone reading this article, this is not legal advice.)

After I finished meeting with Florence, a jailer buzzed me through the sally port, and I made my way to the county attorney’s office. Sitting in the office, I could tell that the prosecutor was preoccupied by other cases. I brought up Marylyn’s case. Not all public defender clients are created equal, and Marylyn is poorer than most. She shared a trailer several miles south of town with a mongrel Shih-Tzu/Pomeranian named Smokey, her most prized possession. Marylyn had no family aside from her sister Judy, and she felt betrayed by Judy. Three years ago, Marylyn and Judy had gotten caught lifting money from the cash registers at Wal-Mart, where they both had worked. Both had pled guilty, and both were on felony probation. Since that time, Marylyn had cleaned herself up, while Judy was still fighting a demon called methamphetamine. Now Marylyn was back in front of the court, charged, along with Judy, with presenting a forged fifty-dollar check at the local grocery store. Because of Marylyn’s record, the prosecutor charged her with a felony.

Marylyn maintained that both her innocence and the marginal evidence the state had against her provided hope that she would be acquitted at trial. Also, Judy expressed her willingness to testify at trial that she had led Marylyn to believe that the owner of the check, which was already signed, had given the check to Judy, and that Marylyn had no way of knowing the check was stolen or forged. Still, Marylyn feared jail as a fate worse than death, and the stress resulting from having to put her faith in the hands of 12 jurors was starting to take its toll.

I suggested to the prosecutor that he reduce Marylyn’s charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. He refused, and the best deal I could get him to agree to was a stay of adjudication, meaning Marylyn would not have a felony on her record if she successfully completed probation. He also offered to suspend all jail time, as long as Marylyn’s probation officer was agreeable. I also asked about George, the young man in jail on drug charges. The prosecutor agreed to suspend all future jail time if George agreed to plead guilty, meaning that if George pled guilty, he would be released from jail today and he would not be required to serve any additional jail time unless he violated the terms of his probation.

When I left the county attorney’s office, I found Marylyn sitting among the people lining the hallway outside of the courtroom. We found a meeting room and I told her about the new offer. Marylyn seemed willing to accept the offer as long as she didn’t have to do any jail time. I racked my brain to think of viable sanctions besides jail. Marylyn couldn’t afford the fee of $5 to $15 per day for the ankle bracelet, and she didn’t have consistent transportation to get to and from community service. Nonetheless, I made these suggestions to her probation officer as alternatives to jail. I also stressed the weaknesses in the state’s case and Marylyn’s success on probation up until now. The probation officer agreed that there were some mitigating circumstances, but she told me that she would not be agreeable to any less than 15 days in jail.

When I told Marylyn about the probation officer’s request, she began to weep. I reminded her that we could still go to trial if that’s what she wanted, but she didn’t know what to do. She told me that she wants to go to trial but she doesn’t want to risk a longer jail sentence should she lose. Also, because Judy was in a treatment program, Marylyn had no one to feed Smokey, and she couldn’t afford to board him. I tried twice more, in vain, to convince Marylyn’s probation officer to allow community service, monitoring, or some combination of the two, and to reduce or eliminate the jail time.

By the time I finished speaking with Marylyn, the jailers had escorted my clients up to the courtroom. I quickly read the one-page police reports that had been filed in each of my new cases, and then talked to the prosecutors that were handling the cases. We were able to resolve Gabe’s case quickly, when the prosecutor agreed with my proposal to sentence Gabe to an executed 10-day jail sentence. I then negotiated with the prosecutor to have one of my driving while intoxicated (DWI) clients sentenced immediately so that he would be eligible for the jail’s work release program. Another new DWI client would be released from jail today with a number of conditions, including the condition that he not drink or enter establishments selling and serving alcohol.

Walking into a conference room adjoining the courtroom, I saw several of my clients, dressed in orange and handcuffed to one another. I told George that if he pled guilty, he would be released from jail and that unless he violated his probation, he would not have to do any more jail time. I told Gabe that if he pled guilty he would have to sit 10 days in jail that would run concurrent (at the same time) to the sentence he was already serving. I then explained the concept of release conditions, as well as the consequences of a guilty plea, to my two new DWI clients.

It was now my turn to go in front of the judge. I called Marylyn’s case. I told the judge that we had not resolved the case, and that the court should set the matter for trial. A trial date was set. Next, I called George, who pled guilty and admitted to the judge that the marijuana belonged to him. The judge agreed to release him from jail until sentencing. Gabe also pled guilty. Florence’s hearing was continued two weeks. Court dates were set for several of my new clients.

Back at the office, I processed paperwork from the day’s court hearings, returned phone calls, and started to prepare for a contested hearing that I had set for Wednesday. The contested issue in Wednesday’s hearing was the prosecutor’s attempts to send Charlie to prison. When Charlie was 17, he and three of his friends — Joe, Adam, and Nate — assaulted Nate’s sister’s boyfriend with a golf club. Though the assault was serious, Charlie’s role was more that of a bystander than actual participant. Nonetheless, Charlie pled guilty to the assault and was sentenced to a hybrid juvenile-adult sentence. As such, although Charlie was only 17, he had a 60-month prison sentence hanging over his head.

As part of his original sentence, the judge had sent Charlie to a long-term treatment program. Charlie excelled in the program and when he was done, he returned to live with his aunt and uncle, who had raised him. During the next eight months, Charlie became a true success story. He found work, he graduated from high school, he earned a scholarship for college, and his probation officer raved about his accomplishments. When he wasn’t in school or at work, Charlie was at home, helping his aunt and uncle with their bough-picking business.

In January of 2007, Charlie’s aunt and uncle were killed when their car hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming grain truck. Having already lost both of his parents — his mother had committed suicide when Charlie was 11 and his father overdosed just last year — Charlie was devastated. He started drinking heavily, and stopped going to see his probation officer. Fifteen months later, Charlie was arrested for domestic assault after he got into a fight with his younger brother. The fight took place in another county; Charlie pled guilty and was sentenced in the other county without knowing what his consequences would be in my county.

Now, despite all of the tragedy Charlie had experienced over the past two years, the prosecutor wanted to send Charlie to prison. The prosecutor wanted Charlie to go to prison even though Charlie’s probation officer said that prison was not appropriate, even though we had gotten him into a six-month alcohol treatment program, and even though Charlie’s fiancée said that she needed him with her to help care for their eight-month-old child. I thought the prosecutor’s position was ridiculous, but I was nervous because the judge had just sent Charlie’s friend Adam to prison under very similar circumstances. I wanted to make sure that all of my arguments and questioning were prepared prior to the hearing.

Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals once wrote, “[a] bare-bones system for the defense of indigent criminal defendants may be optimal.” How pleased he would have been watching me practice on that day. I didn’t make any special demands on the prosecutor or the judge, I didn’t contest anything, and, with the exception of Charlie, I didn’t spend more than a half hour on any given client. Still, I had worked a full day, and when I left the office just before 8:00 p.m., I was spent.

Like many other public defenders, my goal is to provide my clients with representation that is as good as, if not better than, the representation they would receive if they could afford a private attorney. While I owe this duty to each one of my clients, a heavy caseload and lack of funding makes it impossible to dedicate significant time and resources to each case. Instead, effective public defense requires a triage approach: quickly identifying which cases have legal or factual issues, and which cases are more likely to go to trial, then focusing time and resources on those cases. The tricky part of this approach is making sure that those clients whose cases do not receive a significant amount of time and attention still have their constitutional rights vindicated and receive a disposition that is acceptable to them.

When I tell people about my job, I often hear “How can you defend those people?” We are “those people.” Every time a legislator utters, “there ought to be a law against …,” the line between what is criminal and what is not is blurred. Moreover, “those people,” just like us, have constitutional rights, not the least of which is the right to counsel. More than a formality, the right to counsel provides the most effective means through which all other rights are enforced. As a public defender, I hold this right dear to the protection of liberty, not only for “those people,” but for all of us. Though I know it not to be the case, I can only hope that Marylyn, George, Florence, Gabe, Charlie, and anyone else who is unfortunate enough to be poor and charged with a crime, feel the same way.

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