There are Very Few Degrees of Separation Between Our Lives and Our Clients’ Lives
This article originally appeared on the CLO's blog, Writing for Justice. Claire Sullivan is featured in the image to the left, and is a co-author for the article.
Folasade: Every morning, Claire and I catch the 11 bus to work. One particular morning, Claire was a little short on change, and unfortunately, I had nothing to spare. A middle-aged Hispanic man who was already on the bus, seeing us (well, mostly Claire) in our despair, offered to pay Claire’s remaining balance.
Claire: As I got on the bus and paid my fare, I realized that I was short a quarter. I began digging in my bag, but both the bus driver and I knew there was no change to be found. Now I’m starting to sweat. The bus isn’t moving, and the driver is just staring at me. A man sitting toward the front of the bus calls me over, hands me a quarter and flashes a smile. Problem solved. I thank him profusely.
Folasade: Then, nearly 10 minutes into the bus ride, the same gentleman who paid her fare insisted on giving Claire $1 for her next ride.
Claire: Right before our stop, the man asks, “How will you get home?” He tries to hand me money for my next fare.
“No, thank you,” I say. He offers again.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll get a ride. Thank you so much.”
“Here, please take it, you need it more than I do,” he says.
Folasade: Claire declined his offer. “Ok,” the man said, “but you might need it later.” We got off the bus.
Later on that morning, Claire and I were in General Sessions Felony Court. As I was preparing for a client report-back, Claire looked over to me and said, “Folasade, look,” and pointed to the front of the courtroom. She had an awkward grin on her face. The same man who offered Claire money was appearing before the court, facing a violation of his probation for not paying his court costs and fines.
Claire: We had a brief moment of recognition. He is represented by our office. He just got out of prison, just got a job, and the prosecutor wanted him to go back into custody for not making restitution payments.
Folasade: Although Claire and I remained in shock for quite some time after that experience, we embraced its power and significance. We embraced the fact that there are very few degrees of separation between our lives and our clients’ lives.
We also embraced the fact that while we are charged to zealously advocate for our clients, we, as public defenders, are often the ones that learn the most from interactions with clients—like how to remain selfless amidst life’s adversities.
Claire: I was sitting there, watching the court proceedings, feeling goosebumps rise on my skin. Here was a man who thought nothing of helping out a complete stranger on the bus by trying to hand over bus fare to someone he thought was struggling. This man was before the court for not paying his restitution. A person’s situation and character are always so much more than meets the eye.
Folasade: This experience reinforced what Claire and I have known to be true: our clients should not be judged by their class or criminal convictions, but rather by their character.
Claire: As he was leaving the courtoom, the man turned to me and said, “You’re from the bus. You’re a lawyer?”
If only society could see our clients the way I did that day, maybe they’d be more inclined to greater mercy and less punishment.