April is “Second Chance Month,” and JPO is proud to partner with Prison Fellowship and other organizations to celebrate it. In this blog post, we explore the role public defense providers play in helping their clients achieve second chances.
When I first joined the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) as an investigator, my understanding of the roles of defense attorneys and investigators was limited and confined by the courtroom; I thought that defense attorneys and investigators worked on behalf of their clients during the pre-trial phase, trial, and that their work concluded at case disposition. At the conclusion of one case, attention turned to the next client, and the cycle began again. It was only after I began my journey at PDS that I learned about the powerful impact defense attorneys play after case disposition and in reentry.
I witnessed clients experiencing crippling barriers to reentering society as a result of having a criminal record. I saw clients walk back through our doors because they struggled to obtain employment and housing. I saw clients struggle to provide food for their children. I saw clients struggle to get to appointments and school because they lacked transportation. Why does our society in the United States of America that prides itself on being the land of opportunities make it so difficult for individuals with a record to take advantage of these opportunities, I wondered. Why does advocating for their rights end when a case is disposed and when, from their perspective, this might highlight even a greater need for legal aid. Effective representation requires getting to know one’s client on an individual and very personal level. It is through this unique connection that defense attorneys and investigators are powerfully positioned to help their clients navigate the complex legal and social institutions and collateral consequences that come with a criminal record. Aha! The light bulb went off. At the ripe age of 22, I learned that the power of a defense attorney doesn’t really end at case disposition. And neither did the work of the staff at PDS; PDS attorneys were doing just that—continuing to advocate on behalf of their clients, who face obstacles in their daily lives due to prior arrests, convictions, or incarceration.
At PDS, I was lucky to be the first staff investigator assigned to the Community Defender Division (CDD) which is located in a different neighborhood, in the community, and works with both adult and juvenile clients, facing challenges in detention, on parole, and upon reentry. PDS saw the need for an entire division dedicated to helping clients outside of traditional case processes. It also recognized the power of assigning an investigator to this division. At CDD, I partnered with defense attorneys to help clients with criminal records reintegrate into society, remove barriers to living successfully, seal their records when possible, and advocate for the rights of juveniles and adults detained in D.C. and Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. Living with a criminal record is challenging enough, compounding it with dozens of collateral consequences is overwhelming. Defense attorneys and support staff are available to help. Expanding the perception of public defenders and recognizing the myriad hats they wear is key to ensuring defense attorneys have the resources available to provide these essential services.
For more information on PDS and CDD, visit: http://www.pdsdc.org/about-us/legal-services/community-defender-division.
To learn more about Second Chance Month, follow #secondchances and #secondchancemonth on social media and visit: https://www.prisonfellowship.org/about/justicereform/second-chance-month/.