In the belly of the beast
Having witnessed ugliness and hope during her two months as an intern with a New Orleans Public Defenders Office, Lucie Boase brings back a slice of US attorneys' passion for justice to share with legal aid lawyers in the UK
On a drizzly morning back in April, I stood in line for several hours outside the American Embassy waiting for my visa interview. My return coach had long since departed by the time my name was finally called and I struggled through a fog of fatigue to answer accurately the quick-fire questions posed at me by the stern woman behind the glass.
My intentions for visiting the US? To intern with a public defenders office, assisting court-appointed attorneys who provide representation to clients who cannot otherwise afford to pay. My motivation? A belief in the importance of access to justice for all, regardless of their means – the same belief that underpins the work I do as a paralegal and aspiring solicitor in the UK, and which inspired me to join Young Legal Aid Lawyers as a committee member last year.
As the interview drew to a close, the woman softened. ‘Criminal defence in the US? I was a public defender in Houston for 20 years. You’re in for an education!’
And she was right. I have been working at Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) in New Orleans for two months now and every day has been a revelation.
I have seen first-hand the ugly underbelly of a criminal justice system which barely seems worthy of the name.
I’ve watched the pitiful thrice-daily parade of defendants being led out into the court for their first appearance before a judge, their orange jumpsuits and jangling shackles already insinuating guilt. I’ve heard of clients languishing for months upon end in prison because of excessive bonds set without consideration of their individual circumstances or ability to pay. I’ve looked on as attorneys have been harangued from the bench for refusing to accept unfair plea deals on behalf of their clients.
I’ve seen a woman be released from prison and raise her face to a sun whose glow she’s been denied for nine long months – because the new, state-of-the-art facility next to the courthouse was built without any outdoor spaces. I’ve met with a man in a visitation booth who’s been prevented from undergoing scheduled surgery to remove a bullet lodged beneath his skin, which presses into his neck and stops him from sleeping.
And though I haven’t (yet) been, I’m well aware of the notoriety of ‘Angola’ – Louisiana’s state penitentiary, on the site of a former plantation, which is home to a number of the clients whose cases I’ve been working on here – where a crude parody of the South’s uncomfortable history of slavery plays out in the fields of toiling African-American men, watched over by white guards on horseback. I’ve not lost my capacity to be surprised.
Faced with such a broken system, it would be easy to lose heart. Perhaps the biggest education for me has come from witnessing the courage, passion, and tenacity of my colleagues at OPD as they advocate tirelessly for the rights and needs of their clients. They characterise their work as a fight, and though that sounds hyperbolic, it’s anything but.
Public defenders across the US are operating in unfathomably difficult times. The state of Louisiana spends nearly $3.5bn a year to investigate, arrest, prosecute, adjudicate, and imprison its citizens, and less than 2 per cent of that is spent on legal representation for the poor.
OPD hit the headlines last year when it took the painful decision to start turning down new cases, after Derwyn Bunton, the chief district defender for New Orleans, drew the conclusion that his staff could no longer provide adequate representation to their clients due to their unmanageable workloads, which are twice the standard recommended by the American Bar Association. Painful because, as Derwyn wrote in a New York Times op-ed: ‘No one becomes a public defender to tell a poor person, “No, I can’t help you.”’ And yet in the face of these odds, still they fight, with warmth, determination, and unfailing positivity.
Before I came to New Orleans, my colleagues joked that I wouldn’t want to come back. Though my experience here has certainly granted me some perspective on the situation at home, I know that, taking OPD’s example as my guidepost, I will return from the US with fresh vigour and a renewed commitment to face the challenges of practising legal aid law in the UK. There are innumerable differences between these two countries, but I’ve come to see that the motivation for lawyers in publicly funded work remains the same: ensuring access to justice for all. OPD’s call to arms has been an education to me, and their fight is one I’m willing to carry on.
Lucie Boase is a paralegal at Irwin Mitchell and a Young Legal Aid Lawyers committee member