A very poorly constructed rant

I hear from fellow lawyers and laypeople about how noble it is to be a public defender, and how we do is gallant or a true public service. When I hear this bullshit, I want to vomit. Gallantry and nobility are words that are foreign to my experience as a public defender. There is no real meaning in the criminal justice system. Cases become pieces of a puzzle that you have to construct in the dark. You have no idea whether the pieces that you have will recreate the true picture of what happened because you are going on instinct, and how the pieces feel. Guilt or innocence is reduced to probabilities and percentages. Sentences are just a range of numbers. Confinement is seen as a cakewalk. It is three hot meats and a cot or a vacation from the cares of the real world. Or in the eyes of certain jurists, sentences are seen as an instrument to enlighten the masses as to the repercussions of committing a criminal act, and to alter their behavior. However, in this era of Twitter, Facebook, and other social / mass media that produces more sound than fury, and makes all of us sound like blathering idiots, this jurist’s pronunciations are lost in the static, the white noise. The collateral damage that comes from the system is ignored.

The bar may pontificate about the flaws in the public defender system, but they quietly expect us to keep going beyond the limits of intellectual endurance. If we snap or break under the stress, it is of no loss. We are expendable. No, we are interchangeable and easily replaceable cogs in the meat grinder that is the system. They would never treat the vaunted private attorney like the way they treat us.

With every passing day that I am a public defender, I find myself becoming more comfortable that there is a wide kaleidoscope of criminal acts, and there are certain small nuisances between different facets within the kaleidoscope. Some of petty in nature; some are just banal; some are so funny that you have to laugh. However, there are days where I hear of something so fiendish or so deprave that it pierces even my hardened heart, and it causes me to recoil in horror and disbelief. Yet, within in a few days, if not less, I return to my callous state, where I am numb to the suffering of others, and I find myself capable of telling a joke about any depraved act without a second thought or without any malice in my heart. There are some things that come with this profession that you can reconcile to yourself, but you will have a hard time trying to get God to understand.

Over the years of doing this line of work, I find that my mind and my body are in constant warfare with each other. My body wants to collapse from the emotional and psychological wreckage that I must wade through. My mind ignores it, and pushes through it. Yet, there are days where my mind breaks down. Some days it will drop into neutral, and I find myself suffering from the 1,000-yard stare. Alternatively, there are days that my mind will kick into overdrive, despite my physical exhaustion, and obsesses over the most trivial of details or find myself worrying about assignments from classes from law school, college, and high school. To be honest, there are days where all I want to do is cry. The despair that I feel overwhelms me and it comes over me like a wave against an ocean shore. With each wave that comes over me, the man that I was is slowly worn away.


11 Replies to “A very poorly constructed rant”

  1. You really think we are indifferent to the suffering of others? Or that somehow, because of what we do, we have to make amends with God? Every person you come into contact with is or was loved by someone. There was something good in them at some point. They are no less human than the ‘victims’ who, by the way, have a whole team of folks looking out for them.

  2. Norm,

    I am aware there are similar, if not identical problems that come with private practice. However, my particular view is that average private criminal defense attorney is treated with much more respect and dignity than the average public defender by the bar, the courts, and by prosecutors. Also, we all know that if a private attorney carried the caseload that a PD has on a regular basis, the bar would take action to remedy the situation. Again, that is my opinionated .02 worth.


  3. Mirriam,

    Do I think you personally are immune to the suffering of others? No. You do criminal defense and immigration law. Hell, you must have some level of empathy with people to do what you do, and I believe that you do a damn good job for your clients. However, do I believe that the “bar” as a collective group does not give a shit about public defenders, and what we have to do deal with? Hell, yes. It is easy for an organization to bemoan the state of public criminal defense; it is harder for said organization to get off their collective asses to do something about it. Here is my biased .02 worth as to why. First, the members of the bar that are not criminal defense attorneys already do not want to get their hands dirty or have to face the so-call terrible ethical problem of representing a guilty person. It is my smart ass white boy’s opinion that a lot of the people that practice law do so to get rich or gain a certain level of influence within a social strata in their small part of the world instead of serving their fellow man. Second, to deal with the problem would have to air out the system’s “dirty laundry” and make it real to people that the criminal justice system is broken. Despite what Sprite said a few years ago in their advertisements, “image is everything.” Lastly, to do so might invite the wrath of the “get tough on crime” crowd from the public, the legislature, or hell, from fellow members of the bar. And the bar wants to be popular.Anyhow, I do appreciate that you time out of your day to respond to this smart ass white boy’s midnight rant. Next time, I will try to do better.


  4. Mr. Partain: Greetings from the Great Northwest – Washington, the State. your post was picked up by a public defender site, and posted on facebook. I, too, am a public defender – a contract attorney with the Office of Assigned Counsel in my county, and with one of the small cities. I was in private practice, doing Family Law and Criminal Law. And I can tell you, I’d rather deal with a hundred criminals before I took another family law case. That being said, the only part of your post I disagree with is having trouble getting God to understand. I’m pretty sure He understands why we use dark humor to get through rough hours, days, weeks, etc. I definitely agree that a prosecutor’s office (and probably the Bar Association) will treat a private defense attorney better (or at least differently) than a public defender. It is extremely frustrating (and in my opinion, unethical) to have a defendant who has a private attorney get a much better deal than my client.But – I would not give this up for anything. I’ve been an attorney for nearly 20 years, closed my private office about 5 years ago, and have never been happier. The people I am able to help really seem to appreciate the work I do for them. And sometimes, that’s enough.Keep up the good work.

  5. Patricia,

    Thanks for the kind words. It means a lot to me. I do enjoy what I do, but there are days that produce the frustration that leads to a post like the one above. It is nice to know there are fellow PDs like you out there.


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