Finish this statement, “You have the right to remain…”
That’s right - everyone knows, more or less, the mandatory blurb that cops on TV shout at the dude they just chased through a carnival, traffic jam, peewee soccer game, funeral procession, over and under several bridges, up and down fire escapes, and across the rooftops of seven buildings until finally tackling him on a pile of empty cardboard boxes. What a coincidence… just a bunch or cardboard boxes right there. What do you know?
The cop, pardon, police officer, is “reading him his rights.” More specifically, his Miranda Rights. In a civilized nation like America (home of UFC, by the way), even criminals who are caught while committing a crime are entitled to some rights. After all, it’s innocent until proven guilty, right? The Bill of Rights says so. Justice will come to those who commit crimes, there is a process that needs to take place. You can’t frost a cake until it has been baked, and you can’t sentence a perp until he’s been given a fair trial. Anyone else hungry?
So if you commit a crime, you have the right to having a lawyer make up excuses for you. You can hire high-powered defense attorneys for $400/hr. if you are rich. Think white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff, mobsters like John Gotti, and famous criminals like OJ Simpson. Not all criminals have it that good. In fact, most do not. And even the ones that do wind up writing tell-all books about their lives to pay off their legal fees. Crime doesn’t pay, but defendants do.
That’s where you come in. While reading the perp his rights, that TV cop always says “you have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” Sometimes they cut to commercial before that part, but you’ve probably heard it…hopefully not from a real cop. Again, those good old founding fathers thought of everything when they planned this country. Free lawyers, what an idea. Thanks be to the The Bill of Rights and Miranda Rights.
The Public Defender is the person in charge of making sure that T’s are crossed and lower case j’s are dotted at the police station and in the courtroom. They are public employees, so they get paid by the government the same way teachers and firemen do…only they get a little more $. As you guessed, they usually have to deal with a lot of cases without having a ton of time. After all, the accused are getting this for free. They are going to have to take what they can get.
The life of the Public Defender can be difficult. Long hours, no flashy office like the lawyers who have those annoying commercials and easy-to-remember phone numbers like 222-2SUE, and you run the risk of defending people who are clearly guilty. Murderers, drug dealers, pimps, rapists, molesters, arsonists, and car thieves all have a right to an attorney: YOU. How do you do it? How do you carry out those inalienable rights that are in the constitution, even when it is for a young lady who beat up an old lady? Can you live with helping a French-speaking murderer go free because no one read him the Miranda Rights in French? Does that little mistake make it fair? Can you spell moral dilemma?
You didn’t go to law school, pass the state bar exam, or rack up mad debt to help the guilty go free. You want to protect the rights of the citizens and make sure those wrongly accused don’t suffer the consequences of bias and corruption. You want to be Atticus Finch. Well you are in luck. Public Defenders do get to make a difference as well. They can help keep innocent people out of jail or even get convictions reversed. Since 1992, 300 people have been exonerated of their crimes through DNA Identification. Check out The Innocence Project.
The reality is that around 90% of the people you defend are guilty. When you do represent that innocent person, though, it is like free donut day: so sweet but it doesn’t happen enough. You will also be playing “let’s make a deal” with judges to keep your clients out of jail. Since jails are already overcrowded, plea bargains are ubiquitous these days.
Also, as the Public Defender you can help ensure that people don’t get screwed over due to someone else’s stupidity. In other words, you can guard against collateral consequences litigation. For example, you can protect a grandmother from getting evicted from her apartment because her grandson was selling drugs in the lobby. This interview of a Public Defender in Harlem explains it all.