During my spring break, I got the opportunity to shadow at the Federal Public Defenders office of the Northern District of Alabama. As a sophomore in high school, I went into my shadowing opportunity without much knowledge of the criminal legal system. The main idea I had of the work of a public defender came from the remarkable book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I highly recommend. It was my introduction to criminal law and has led me to be much more curious about the legal system and how it affects minorities. Here is what I learned throughout the week as I followed these sharp federal public defenders around the city of Birmingham.
The first thing I noticed was that most of their caseload consisted of drug-related charges. A third of the defendants sentenced in federal court in 2021 consisted of drug offenders . Our current legal system fosters a cycle of reusing and forces people struggling with addiction into prison. I sat in on 2 revocation hearings. These are hearings in which the judge determines whether the defendant violated their supervised release or probation conditions. It is important to note that one out of every 60 adults in the USA is under probation supervision .
In one of the revocation hearings I sat in on, the Judge told the defendant, who was struggling with drug use, that they had “to get this foolishness under control” if they wanted to stay out of prison. It was extremely shocking to see a federal district judge speak about drug addiction like it isn’t a complex disease that requires a lot more than some willpower and good intentions. After the hearing and once the defendant was taken away, the Judge stayed for a moment and repeatedly told both the prosecutor and the defense attorney that the defendant would not be able to stay clean. The Judge, just like the entire criminal system, showed no hope for the future of the defendant. Why keep this system in place if the people instituting it know it isn’t working? In fact, 68% of drug offenders are rearrested within 3 years of release from prison .
“Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to” . The reality is that drug addiction isn’t something you can force somebody to quit; it requires time and patience, something our criminal justice system doesn’t provide for those suffering from addiction. I heard multiple defendants plead with their attornies that staying clean was extremely difficult especially when most facilities in Alabama won’t accommodate felons or even the prevalence of racism in these facilities. One defendant I met spoke about how they were forced to leave their third rehab facility because they were being discriminated against.
I got to sit in on a few presentencing report meetings, in which the defendant’s history and characteristics are collected to be put into a report which is given to the Judge to consider before sentencing. Through these meetings, I learned about the impact of a person’s background on their actions and why they may have done what they did. In fact, I asked one of the attornies in the office what is a skill they think I should start cultivating if I want to be a part of the legal system, and they told me to get out of my comfort zone and get accustomed to the real world; they told me to get out and start learning about the “clientele” which consists of the poor and the people most disenfranchised by our society. For this reason, I do not understand the point of mandatory minimums. A mandatory minimum sentence is a minimum number of years that must be served for a charge. Most of the cases that were discussed during my shadowing time were tackling a mandatory minimum. In drug-related charges, mandatory minimums are based on the amount of drugs involved. These force judges to disregard the background of a defendant and the specific characteristics of a case simply to fulfill the outdated mandatories in place. They were put in place simply to encourage the government to prosecute higher-profile drug-related cases. As a result, “prosecutors’ use of mandatory minimums in over half of all federal cases disproportionately impacts poor people of color and has driven the exponential growth in the federal prison population in recent decades” . With the use of mandatory minimums, we will never have a just legal system.
It is hard to imagine how Covid-19 affected the legal system. We often discuss the pause in time that the pandemic caused in our personal lives. The legal system was not able to avoid this either. As a result, many defendants were forced to wait in custody before they could even reach the courtroom. One defendant admitted, “Sometimes, I put myself in terrible situations”. They had been sitting in prison for 2 years without ever stepping foot inside a courtroom due to the Covid-19 court closures. Severe backlogs of cases have been stocking up across the country. And even worse, the economic fallout of the pandemic means fewer resources to address these backlogs .
While the consequences of the pandemic are severe, the positives of the forced reform to the criminal justice system may be the push needed to create substantial change in the system. One attorney I spoke to, discussed that the pandemic caused officials to rethink how we do things in the system, and further facilitated creative thinking of ways we can better it.
In The End
I appreciate my shadowing experience with the Federal Public Defenders. I got to see the back end of the criminal justice system we often discuss; I saw the intense meetings that take place to determine strategies, the effects of prison conditions on the defendants, and judges compromising and contemplating how their decisions could make or break a person. It was eye-opening and makes me even more eager to educate myself on the ways we can better how we handle criminal justice.
Fore more articles pertaining to government and politics, visit Stacey Abrams’ 2021 Nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize