Several days ago, dozens of public defenders around the country shared their collective pain about an all-too-familiar dilemma. Despite the satisfaction and righteousness of this work, crushing workloads and poor pay make sustaining a career (and a healthy life beyond work) exceptionally challenging. Sometimes impossible.
It is painful to read of the burdens that public defenders carry with such strength and conviction. We know that when a public defender says they have 300 open felony cases, this really means 300 stressed out, at times vastly misunderstood humans, whose life and liberty weigh on your heart.
And for every client’s criminal charge, there are other problems that call for repair. The client that has a circle of loved ones – partners and children and parents and employers who enter into the equation, too. And the challenges faced by the client devoid of support but for you, who is isolated, in pain and alone. Indeed, the broad systemic issue – the oppression of communities and the perpetuation of bias – carries its own weight. And the ultimate paradox of living and working in a society at-large who believes in a “criminal justice system” that is nothing like the reality we confront each day.
Public defenders get up every day committed to tackling what can understandably feel like a Sisyphean task. For their efforts, their compensation barely covers student debt and living costs, and perhaps doesn’t allow them to buy a house, take a deserved vacation in the tropics, send their kids to college, have medical benefits, or include a retirement plan.
In that airing of collective pain, NAPD doesn’t purport to have any easy fix. This is not a phase, or a consequence of COVID. Since the right to counsel was affirmed as a fundamental constitutional right, every generation of public defenders has struggled to survive – forget thrive – in a system designed to dehumanize the most vulnerable among us, institutionalize prejudice, and devalue the public defense function, in terms of both respect, and resources.
We see this struggle. We see your sacrifice.
We are enraged and heartbroken and depressed and exhausted and stubborn too. Each of you have lives beyond work, and each of you who shared your story on that thread is still here. Some of you have left this work and come back. Some of you may want to leave tomorrow. We don’t have answers. We know this conversation has been going for decades without relief.
We see small indications that suggest a dawning awareness of how valuable we are as public defenders; of how pervasive injustice is in a system that has exploited public confidence without accountability; of how grievously maligned poor people and particularly poor people of color are in this country. We see those hopeful signs of small change and we know that it’s not enough change, and its decades overdue and damnit, it doesn’t make that rock we are trying to push up the hill any less heavy. A rock and a hard place. And yet we also know that we all have refused to let that rock roll back down hill, destroying all in its wake.
You have a hard, hard job, we know. Adding insult to injury is that it often feels like no one understands except this community.
While we work for the elusive solutions that we know better than to promise on a timeline, we do offer community. Public defense – by design – has been historically isolated by jurisdiction. Public defenders working just a few miles away, struggling with common problems, do not have a mechanism to connect, support each other, and leverage each other’s achievements in a way that makes us stronger together.
We can’t reduce your workload. We can’t raise your pay. But we can build a first ever national community for everyone with their boots on the ground fighting to deliver equal access to justice when liberty is at stake.
A community of Davids standing bravely to face Goliath. Tired, pissed off, under-resourced, but motivated by values that keep us doing the impossible. If not forever, for a little bit longer.
Some may dismiss “community” as being an insufficient form of support. (Maslow’s hierarchy puts our need for belonging two tiers above our basic needs for survival, and we know some of you are in fact feeling that very challenge.) But community is something, and here at NAPD we think it’s actually a very significant thing.
As a community, we invite you to come to our annual conference, join our Wednesday Wellness group, ask for a scholarship or whatever kind of support you need. We will do our best to connect you to the people and strategies and skills that lighten your load just a little.
We are here for you: to listen, to empathize, to scream and cry and motivate. We know. Lean on us. Share. A better day is coming. We aim to get there together.