Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Two Minutes A Client

I am a defender in a county that handles new in custody defendants' appearances at 10:30 a.m. every morning. People arrested on new offenses, picked up on warrants for missing court, picked up on warrant for alleged probation violations, or picked up alleged release condition violations are brought before a judge to have bail conditions and next hearing dates set.

Every public defender wherever they work has some version of this calendar. I have been a public defender in two states and in a few different counties. This "jail calendar" sucks wherever it is.

In my current county, there is a lot good about the process that is better than other places. We are provided with a list of the defendants set for hearing. The list gives us sketchy but useful information in order to help us figure out where the client's case is procedurally. We aren't a huge county, so the daily lists range from 20 to 35 defendants, which is much better than horror stories I hear from bigger jurisdictions.

We get the list about 60 minutes before the hearing. We have one or two attorneys, ideally, handling the calendars, but over the past few years we have not had attorney staff to handle the calendars. We have law students, who are permitted by Supreme Court rules to handle court appearances, represent our clients on the jail calendar. I help train the students and feel confident that they do a good job. But it isn't the way it should be. Defendants should have attorneys at their bail hearing. It's hard to think of a more crucial hearing (other than trial) than that, in the client's eyes anyway.

The attorneys/law students walk into a 20' x 20' room filled with dozens of men - some drunk, high, mentally ill, scared, sleepy, mad, and everything else - all wondering when they're getting out of jail. They want to tell you about their alibi, that their cat that isn't getting fed, the job interview they have, that Jim Morrison is talking to them, that the girlfriend that had it coming, their sadness, and everything in between.

We have two minutes with each client if we are going to be in the courtroom when the judge starts calling cases - three minutes if we're lucky. Sometimes the judge waits. That time is important. We talk all the time about what it takes to establish trust with our clients. We cut to the chase.

"Today will not be the day to fight your case. Today is the day I am going to try to get you out of jail. What I ask you is what I have to know in order to make the best possible argument to get you out of jail."

That shuts up the chatter. The room is quiet and people listen.

I wish there was a better way to do it.