Why did I choose to be a public defender? I’m often asked why I would want to defend “those people,” “those monsters”. I have heard the question at every interview in my entire law school career.
I didn’t have a story of escaping from a life of crime or of watching my parents or my siblings come in and out of the system. I was born in Haiti and grew up mostly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in Melrose. If you didn’t grow up there, my old neighborhood probably doesn’t mean much to you. Things didn’t get too hot on our block, but neither did we fully escape crime and violence. There were no gates in my community.
Prison wasn’t a constant presence, but more like a distant relative, like an unwelcome guest in the lives of childhood friends. It was a place saver for a whole group of missing ones, the brothers who would miss high school graduations, the mothers who missed ‘first kiss” stories, the fathers who weren’t around to walk their daughters down the aisle.
The folk missing in our neighborhoods usually came home, but until they did we wore the t-shirts with their faces on them that we had painted at the Swap Shop on Sunrise Blvd, demanding their freedom. It was the same Swap Shop where we made t-shirts for fallen friends and family members.
So when the curious few ask me how I can defend “those people”, they are speaking about the people I grew up with in my neighborhood. The people they speak of in hushed conspiratorial tones were at our barbeques, our churches, and our libraries. They were not an “other”, but an integral part of the fabric of our community.
Still, my initial childhood dreams of growing up to be a lawyer were focused on arguing in court, wearing sky-high heels, and making money. Then, somewhere around high school, I discovered that I couldn’t escape writing and decided to become a journalist. So I went to college with a goal of becoming an international journalist. I kept my head down, and I wrote.
The societal implications of criminal law became clearer to me during my sophomore year at Florida State, when I took an elective class called Black Males with Dr. Billy Close that changed my entire life. The class contextualized all of the seemingly isolated experiences I witnessed in my childhood. I continued to read and became more aware and more angry.
Ultimately, I decided to become a public defender because I was pissed off.
I grew tired of viewing the problem from the outside: people that looked like me, from neighborhoods resembling mine, were arrested, incarcerated, released, and re-arrested and re-convicted. This cycle continued until one day they died or they received a life sentence. I grew tired of the narrative that most people were prone to committing crime, that most people were violent; the narrative of mass incarceration being a “necessary evil”. Most of all, I grew tired of the narrative that those who are caught committing crimes were so different from the rest of us, that they were pre-determined offenders and nothing we do, or abstain from doing could change the course of their lives.
When we dehumanize offenders into monsters, we legitimize the oppression that we thrust upon them. Many do so calmly, without an ounce of guilt. It’s the script. It is, after all, the purpose and strategy of dehumanization; to allow us to treat others, as we would not ever want to be treated, because you cannot be inhumane to a being that is inhuman.
This concept is prevalent every time I’m asked the question of why I would ever consider a career in indigent defense. I don’t believe that those accused of crimes are monsters, but instead, people who should be treated as individuals deserving of respect.
Crime and recidivism do not exist in a vacuum and neither do their solutions. The problem is not a lack of knowledge; rather it is a lack of empathy. Journals, legal resources, and even Google have abundant information on recidivism. Walking into a barbershop, beauty salon or house of worship in communities affected by crime and mass incarceration will garner similar results. They will all testify how difficult “coming home” truly is when you can’t get work, when you’re marked with a stigma, when you’re deemed a second class citizen.
Therein lies the rub. We have built our criminal justice system on competing dualities. We want to be both punitive and rehabilitative, and since both cannot live in the same space, we routinely choose the former. Our punitive system extends far beyond the prison walls and into extra-judicial punishment reflected in our policies, which create roadblocks to successful re-entry.
Sometime around my second year of law school, I was fortunate enough to hear Bryan Stevenson’s Ted talk: We Need to Talk about Injustice. I heard it at a point in my life where I decided that I would be a public defender, but had no words to explain why. I was still asked the question; “how can you defend those people, those monsters?” Stevenson said, “ I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” It was simple, it was poignant and it stayed with me. Some people have done horrible things, and others have simply deviated from acceptable societal norms, but they are human still.
There is no middle ground on humanity, and no compromise on allowed levels of dehumanization. When we approach the subject of recidivism, and crime as a whole, it is important to ask ourselves, if we are ready to face our hypocrisy.
In my career as a public defender, it my mission to make certain, no one ever forgets it.