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Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System

The primary takeaway from this summer, which I wasn’t expecting, was the way I viewed people with mental health problems and the issue of mental health in general. It quickly became clear to me that locking up a crazy person was not going to do much in terms of curing their mental illness. However, it also became clear to me that mentally handicapped people who commit crimes are often a danger to society. The sensible medium, which I saw many defense attorneys and many ADA’s advocate for, is to put mentally handicapped people in to some sort of program that actually works to correct the problem. In theory this all seems very easy but when you take in to account how often clients fail to rehabilitate themselves in these programs, a romantic outlook on this approach becomes harder and harder to maintain. We’re at a point in the young history of abnormal psychology where there are so many problems, so many questions, and so few answers. It makes me wonder where to draw the line between protecting society and protecting mentally challenged individuals. I have no idea what the answer is; in many ways it’s a problem that can only be solved by doctors. Public defenders, who play the crucial role of protecting those who cannot protect themselves, can only help this population on a short term basis. With so many different subjective opinions about how to handle this, I’m confident that there is at least one objective starting point and that is admitting that those who are mentally disable are in fact mentally disabled. I don’t know where to go from there, but I’m proud to say that this experience has at least taught me to be honest with myself and others about such a simple, yet difficult thing to admit.

Empathy For Police Officers and Criminals Alike

Being so close to the criminal justice system this summer has made clear to me many of the inefficiencies that are on the N.Y.P.D. level. I think back to one of my first investigations that took place in a Harlem N.Y.C.H.A. building that participates in the N.Y.P.D. “cleans hallways” program. The client was leaving a friend’s apartment and was stopped by police on his way out and accused of trespassing. Putting aside the many problems with having cops patrolling in the hallways of apartment buildings, this issue could have been resolved fairly quickly with a few questions such as “who were you visiting? Which apartment? Can they vouch for you?” Without saying that the police should be there in the first place, we can at least can say it’s the most efficient way to determine if the person is trespassing. Had this happened when my client was stopped, he could have brought the cops to the third floor, knocked on his friend’s door, had the friend come out, and had her explain that she lives there and that the client is always welcome. This would have wasted five minutes instead of however much time and money gets collectively wasted on a case like that. The police, however, did not take that route, they assumed guilt despite the client’s pleas to take the officer up to his friend’s apartment so that he could prove his innocence. Furthermore, while this was happening in the lobby, one of the client’s other friends who was visiting the same resident, and had stayed a little longer, came down to exit the building and saw what was happening. The cops allowed the client to hand over his skateboard and cell phone to the friend, effectively acknowledging that they knew each other and that the exiting friend was not breaking the law. This alone should have been enough to believe that the client was visiting a tenant of the building and not trespassing.
I didn’t really know how to explain this series of events. Was the arresting officer truly that much of a moron? I certainly didn’t believe that, even a small child could have put the logic together. Was the arresting officer out to get my client in particular? Probably not, if that were the case my client would have been inclined to say that he knows the officer or that they have some kind of negative connection. Was the officer out to get poor people or black people? Maybe, but why? Is he a racist or a truly evil person? Unlikely, because this sort of thing happens across the city so consistently, according to my attorneys, that I would have to assume almost every officer is racist and evil, which seems pretty unreasonable; this is a serious problem with minority officers as well. He may, however, have been out to get people for another reason. This summer I learned about the N.Y.P.D. quota system and it got me thinking. If an officer has to make an arrest to keep up his numbers and there is no one to arrest legitimately, what should he do? My initial reaction was to think that he should maintain his integrity and arrest no one in that situation. What if it effects his career and therefore his ability to support his family? I wouldn’t call a drug dealer who’s trying to support his starving family a terrible person. I wouldn’t call him a great person either because a great person would probably overcome obstacles and support his family in another, more legitimate way but, by definition, not everyone can be a great person. What if that drug dealer is not a great person? Let’s say they’re not smart enough or they lack the confidence; they’re average. What if they’re just like the cop in that they’re not willing to put their integrity above their family’s health and safety. Most people are brought up to believe that putting your family first is the most important thing. However, many people are also brought up to believe that drug dealers and unethical police officers are bad people. There are clearly philosophical issues with supporting impoverished criminals but not everyday police officers. Both groups, in my opinion, are victims of circumstance and institutional flaws.
I have no disdain for the officer who arrested our client in that lobby because I don’t know for sure that he could have done the admirable thing in that type of situation on a consistent basis and still taken care of his family. Maybe he’s just an asshole, that’s a definite possibility. Maybe every drug dealer on that block is a greedy pig who wants to see his community suffer while he counts his cash, that’s also a possibility too. Neither of those possibilities are proven and I can’t condemn one and not the other without being biased and unjust. Coming to this conclusion helped further my understanding that wrongdoing is often a result of circumstances, whether it be NYPD policies set by the highest bureaucrats or extreme poverty that’s been passed down for generations. Going back to the issue of the Eric Gardner’s death: before the officers chocked him out while he said he couldn’t breath, the officers made a decision to go after someone who clearly was not committing a crime. What caused them to do that and who’s fault is it that they did? I still don’t know. I was happy to see the Legal Aid attorney-in-chief describe Mr. Garner’s death as “a sad commentary on the N.Y.P.D. because it made clear that the institution is at fault. I think the individuals are also at fault and I’m glad Mr. James spoke on their liability as well, but to single them out without also blaming the institution for its role wouldn’t have sat well with me.

Equal Protection Under the Law

My experience as a Legal Aid intern has changed my understanding of the importance of “equal protection under the law” and fairness in general. I used to take in to account where I stood on societal issues when evaluating the fairness of a legal issue. For example, last spring when I was living in New Orleans I was outraged to find out an N.O.P.D. officer was able to plea out of a child rape case and receive a small sentence that included time served. I knew none of the facts of the case and was very biased against both police officers and those accused of sex crimes against children. This summer at Legal Aid I did not face only the types of clients who I am biased in favor of, such as drug offenders and people who may have been illegally searched. I worked for people who were accused of driving drunk, I worked for people accused of doing terrible things to children, and I worked for people accused of stealing from others. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with these types of biases. People working within the system such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers actually feel the same way. It was when I saw it in them that I realized I could not allow myself to think like that.
For example, a client told me this summer about his interaction with a police officer before the cameras started rolling in the DWI testing room. The client told me the officer said, “you are a danger to my daughter and I’m going to make sure I protect her.” Despite how unprofessional that is, what really bothered me was that the officer said it before, not after, the client blew above .08 or failed other parts of the physical sobriety test. As a result, the client was intimidated and refused to take the test. Now, what could have been obvious guilt or obvious innocence depending on the result, is a potential trial based on almost no conclusive evidence. What a waste of time and money. Not to take away from the importance of going to trial from a defense standpoint, but trials should exist so that the peers can evaluate evidence, not because the system was unable to produce any real evidence to evaluate. Without bias, the officer would have been respectful and non-threatening and the chances of the client participating in the test would have increased greatly. The fact that “I didn’t take the test because I didn’t trust the officer” is actually a legitimate defense is a testament to how harmful biases are to a criminal justice system that strives to be efficient, fair, and productive.
Through meeting these clients face to face, talking about their cases with my attorneys, and doing investigations for them, I came to the conclusion that equal protection under the law is a timeless asset that the United States and the whole world should cherish. It’s not about choosing specific issues and fighting for them, it’s about protecting a system of justice because while it may seem righteous to ignore the laws to create what seems fair in an individual case, the sum of fairness to all is greater than its parts. What I mean is, you can’t bend the rules to make an example out of people because the negative results of that are not felt on a case by case basis as much as they are felt in terms of society’s belief that the judicial system is fair. This is supported by looking at the most and the least functional cities, states, and countries and noticing how lack of trust in the legal system’s integrity is correlated to higher crime rates and less economic stability. If an officer finds a mound of illegal things in someone’s house but the house was illegally searched, I believe we must think about how the court’s treatment of that person affects not just how effectively the individual is disciplined, but also the state of justice in society as a whole.

Nature of the Job

At about the half way point now I’m checking in with my first post. Better late than never I suppose. I learned quickly that my internship is a lot of what you make it. With about ten other students holding the same position as me, I’ve seen about ten different approaches. This speaks to the flexibility and freedom of the job, a work environment that I appreciate. My level of supervision is low, but the expectations for my work are high. I’m being evaluated by my bosses based on what I produce for them in terms of quality and speed. They aren’t looking on to me and judging me based on how busy I look, which is something I can’t stand so I consider my self very fortunate because I did not realize the internship would be like that. I could have inferred however, because I did know that a lot of my work would be outside of the office. I’ve been doing things such as tracking down witnesses, interviewing them, searching for public and private surveillance footage, attaining said surveillance footage, taking pictures etc. (I’m working at a criminal defense firm). This is something that all the interns are doing but there is still a lot of room to make it your own like I said. Some of the interns want to complete as many investigations as possible and will go to as many lawyers as they can asking for work, but the consequence of that is they don’t become all that in depth with each case, especially from a legal angle. Doing an investigation is one thing, but making a legal decision about what to do with the information is what separates lawyers from investigators. Something I have enjoyed is returning to the office from an investigation, telling the lawyer what he/she needs to know, and then discussing what to do with that information, how we will use it to help the client. For example, I went on an investigation and discovered some information about the past of a complaining witness (i.e. the enemy of our client). I watched the lawyer take the information I’d given about her boyfriend and her criminal record and do some research to confirm the extent of their records. He them explained to me how he would use this to discredit her in court. Some interns in my position would not have taken part in that and would have instead completed another investigation. that’s a strategy that works well for some of them who plan to work as an investigator before law school. I, however, am more interested in using investigations to learn how to be a lawyer. I’ve heard on that job that in order to instruct your investigators you need to be able to do investigations yourself, so you can put yourself in others’ shoes. So that’s the advantage that I see. More to come soon; in my next post I’ll share some specific anecdotes about some of my Manhattan investigations.