Anjelica Hendricks, Fredericksburg Public Defender’s Office
My work at the Fredericksburg Public Defender’s Office (FPDO) as a legal intern has truly been an enriching and hands-on experience. Unfortunately though, shortly after starting my work this summer I realized that Virginia, and many other states, have created a criminal institution in which it is a crime to be poor.
During my internship, I observed how fines and financial penalties across jurisdictions often leave indigents helpless at the hands of the cycling criminal system. For example, when defendants go to court for a criminal or traffic matter, they are required to pay fines and costs. If they cannot pay, their license can be suspended. In many cases a suspended license presents significant transportation challenges, including the ability to work, and for some, to earn income to pay off the fines. This often leads to driving with a suspended license followed by additional charges, fines, costs and ultimately incarceration (after three charges). This cycle dramatically decreases the likelihood that indigent clients will escape the criminal system. While those with the ability to pay rarely serve time for similar crimes.
I have learned firsthand the challenges that public defenders face, especially when seeking to defend those who live at or below the poverty line. I was disheartened to learn that, for instance in Virginia, a “limited discovery” rule denies criminal defendants the rights to read police reports or to be informed of the evidence being used against them. These types of practices make it difficult for defense attorneys, and specifically public defenders to prepare a sufficient argument and often leave defendants in the helpless position of sitting in jail and awaiting a trial-by-ambush.
One of the most perplexing issues I encountered working under Virginia law was the unfortunate reality that restitution, not rehabilitation, is the primary outcome of the legal system. The policy that ensures that some defendants remain on probation until they have paid certain fines, for example, does nothing to help secure employment or direct individual to resources that will prevent them from becoming repeat offenders. Furthermore, the pleas that the State offers indigent clients seem to often present a deal in which defendants are pressured, either by the State or by their social status, to opt for a short-term deal that will put them at a disadvantage over the long term.
For example, in some jurisdictions if individuals are charged with petty larceny, they will be given two options; 1) take a felony charge and go home, or 2) take a misdemeanor charge and spend a few days in jail. The individual with the financial resources and family support will undoubtedly choose the few days in jail. However, imagine a single mother with two children and no family support; she cannot spend the days in jail. Who would care for her children while she is gone? Because of this, she would most likely select the felony charge. Even though she will be able to return to her children, she is now labeled a felon and will face more barriers while seeking employment and government assistance opportunities. Sadly, many of those labeled as “felons” (most of whom committed non-violent crimes) are simply those who could not pay the cost, either monetarily or with time, for the misdemeanor charge.
To minimize the disparities in the criminal justice system between indigent clients and non-indigent clients, more resources should be allocated to Public Defender Offices in order to help address individual needs that extend beyond the courtroom. It is disheartening to learn that in many public defender offices, once the work dealing with the client’s criminal charges is completed, the office is forced to close the file. The clients’ other needs, such as housing, healthcare, employment, etc, go unmet, and they are forced to navigate the complex social services system alone.
However, despite the various challenges and difficulties associated with public defense, I feel a renewed commitment to representing those most susceptible to the preferential elements of the law that disproportionately affect the poor. I look forward to applying the lessons and experiences I have learned at FPDO to future public interest endeavors.