A Modest Proposal for the Looming California Prison Crisis

In order to comply with a federal court order, Governor Jerry Brown must release 10,000 more prisoners by the end of this year. Over the past 15 years, California’s prison population has ballooned by 500%. At the time of the federal court’s order, California’s prisons were stuffed to 175% of inmate capacity. The release of 10,000 more will bring that down to the 137% ordered by the federal court. Prior to this, about one inmate per week was dying in prison due to preventable medical reasons made unpreventable by overtaxed prison health care systems.

The bulk of these prisoners are serving multi-year or multi-decade sentences under California’s Three Strikes law, regardless of how long ago a defendant committed his “strike” offense. At least a thousand are serving terms for non-violent drug offenses. Several thousand are approaching old age. Many others would be treated more effectively, more humanely, and more affordably in psychiatric facilities.

Governor Brown responded to the federal court’s most recent demand with what one lawyer called “willful defiance.” Governor Brown has since modified his stance to include giving over $300,000,000 to the Corrections Corporation of America to rent their for-profit prison facilities. Governor Brown says that this is necessary for public safety, because public safety would be jeopardized by the early release of an elderly inmate who committed a robbery 20 years prior, and who will likely die of natural causes before finishing his lengthy prison term for some property crime.

Governor Brown is missing an opportunity to solve problems in California’s traditional manner: letting the voters decide by way of ballot proposition. Californians routinely place decisions regarding criminal sentencing and the taxes that pay for it on the ballot for popular vote. Thus far, the initiative process has resulted in a huge prison population that no one wants to pay for. But that’s only because the right initiative hasn’t been passed yet.

I propose the following legislation:

Section 1

The Title of this act shall be the “Entitled Baby Boomer Criminal Justice Act,” and shall be referred to hereafter as the Act.

Section 2

We the People of the State of California have agreed upon the following knee-jerk reactions to the complicated social problems of crime and drug abuse in our state

a) If you do the crime, then you do the time [original emphasis];

b) We, the People, breathlessly follow any news story concerning the disappearance of a photogenic child, and we have decided that the sad afterglow of such a highly publicized tragedy is the perfect time to craft legislation that will apply to everyone for the foreseeable future;

c) We, the People, are very confident that no provision of the Act will interfere with the life, liberty, or happiness of anyone that we know, because they are good people and our kids are in private school;

d) Unlike the fields of medicine, astrophysics, or engineering, the subject of criminal justice requires absolutely no specialized education or training; this gives our opinions the force and weight of actual research.

Section 3

Recognizing that more than one-fifth of the current prison population are senior citizens, We the People declare the following measures necessary for public safety:

a) At no time shall an ailing or elderly prisoner be given access to motorized wheelchairs whose battery life would allow them to travel more than 20 feet beyond prison walls;

b) At no time shall an elderly prisoner be given access to non-motorized wheelchairs with brakes, since brakes would encourage elderly inmates to attain dangerous speeds during escape attempts;

c) All nurses, doctors, surgeons, and pharmacists who attend to elderly prisoners shall register as “criminal enablers” with the sheriff of chief of police of the city or county in which they reside, and shall not reside within 1000 meters of a park or playground;

d) For inmates who have been sentenced to serve additional time beyond a life sentence, their mouldy bones and other mortal remains shall be kept in a vessel made of recycled cardboard and stowed in a broom closet to be determined by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

e) An inmate’s age, frailty, or pitiful life expectancy shall not be considered when deciding whether to release the prisoner to ease institutional overcrowding, because if you do the crime, then you should do the time.

Section 4

The following provisions have nothing to do with the fact that the Act was drafted, edited, and promoted by the Corrections Corporation of America and the union representing state corrections officers:

a) Unlike alcohol, tobacco, and prescription opiates, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are dangerous, addictive narcotics that cause overdoses, murder, and dangerous depletions of both Cool Ranch Doritos and internet bandwidth. Any inmate whose blood tested positive for the presence of THC at the time of their arrest shall not be granted early release under any circumstances;

b) Anyone who, while present in the United States without legal documentation, dares to exchange their labor for money, goods, or services shall be imprisoned in the county jail or in state prison for 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years. This includes those who exchange their labor for produce that they later sell themselves in lieu of actual wages;

c) No part of subdivision (b) shall be used to punish the Job Creators ™ who lure undocumented workers from their troubled homelands with the promise of toil in exchange for produce;

d) We the People, by way of our elected governor, and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shall give as many millions of dollars as are necessary to the purveyors of privately owned prisons for use of their facilities. This policy will continue until California’s sentencing laws have accomplished their goal of creating a crime-free Utopia, which will assuredly happen some time before the state completely runs out of money.

Section 5

We the People hereby refuse to pay for anything that we want, including the implementation of the Act. Specifically:

a) All budgetary items not related to the prosecution and prolonged incarceration of inmates shall be tallied under a single line item called “bullshit;”

b) All of the costs for maintaining the prison population shall be deducted from designated “bullshit” expenditures, because no state services benefit the gainfully employed and our kids are in private school anyway;

c) The Courts of Appeal will heretofore be known as the Courts That Waste Tax Dollars by Delaying Executions, and their operating budgets shall be allocated along with all other “bullshit” expenditures;

Section 6

In keeping with California’s rich tradition of placing individuals’ constitutional rights on the ballot for majority vote, We the People hereby strip the Superior Court, Courts of Appeal, and Supreme Court of jurisdiction to hear cases in which prisoners allege that the Act strips them of due process rights or imposes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Section 7

Any orders by the Supreme Court of the United States that are contrary to the Act shall be returned to the Supreme Court by registered mail with an affixed Post-It note that declares, “UR not the boss of me,” followed by the following emoticon: > : p

Since I am unable/unwilling to breach this blog’s anonymity to gather signatures and submit the proposal to the Secretary of State, I entrust you, my readers, to carry this torch for me.

Because if you do the crime, you should do the time!

In accordance with statute.
In accordance with statute.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Norm Reviews: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is the newest program in Netflix’s burgeoning foray into original content. The premise is based upon the true story of Piper Kerman, a self-described WASP from Boston who, during an “adventurous, lost soul phase” after college, helped her girlfriend (a heroin dealer) sneak a suitcase of drug money into a foreign country. Ten years later (the statute of limitations of that particular crime is 12 years, by the way), Kerman is living a respectable life and engaged to Larry Smith, a writer. She is now an advocate for women’s prison reform.

The premise itself is a commentary on the overreach of tough-on-crime drug laws. It challenges our belief that “nice people” can never wind up behind bars. In fact, they often do. Perhaps more often than the average American might think.

Every episode of OITNB spends time focusing on one or two of the other inmates who share the prison with Piper. These flashback sequences often reveal how an otherwise “nice” person might find themselves serving a prison sentence. During the first few episodes, I find the flashbacks work just a little too hard to evoke sympathy from the audience. Later into the series, these sequences improve noticeably and are some of the show’s best moments. “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here,” Piper says during a visit with her mother. This is the sentiment that these sequences are clearly trying to invoke, and they are largely successful.

At the same time, OITNB manages to make prison feel closer than many of its viewers might have thought by illustrating the frightening overreach of this country’s war on drugs. Drug use and addiction lay at the heart of several characters’ back stories, as are the federal sentencing guidelines that give judges little power to do anything but send non-violent drug offenders to prison.

OITNB does not shy away from the subject of abuse by correctional officers. I appreciate OITNB’s desire to show the unsuspecting viewer at home the many indignities and abuses that female inmates across the country suffer at the hands of bent COs. OITNB shows COs fathering children with inmates, selling them dope, trading them dope for sexual favors, turning a deliberate blind eyes to inmate-on-inmate violence, and a slew of other crimes and sins that likely have corresponding true stories from real prisons. But the small cast of CO characters forces OINTB to have all of them display at least two of these behaviors apiece. The viewer at home should see this as creative liberty taken for the sake of compelling television (which OITNB certainly is) and not as unfair slandering of corrections officers.

What impressed me most about OITNB was the way it kept Piper’s personal story parallel to her prison experience. In one scene, Larry’s parents try to persuade him not to follow through with his marriage to Piper. They urge Larry to wait to see what Piper is like after having served her prison term. The sentiment behind their words is, doubtlessly, a sentiment that many of the viewers at home would have if their sons or daughters decided to marry someone who has yet to finish serving a prison term. Larry’s parents assume that prison, dank, disgusting, and violent place that it is, will make Piper a worse person, a person to whom they do not want their son shackled for life. Everyone who sympathizes with this feeling should then ask themselves what, exactly, is the purpose of our prisons if they make people worse than before they went in?

Even when a person leaves prison largely intact, that person is often no more prepared or able to avoid prison in the future. Only two characters leave the prison during the first season of OITNB, but one of them returns within two episodes. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson spends two episodes preparing for a parole hearing that wins her an early release. However, after her release, she finds that the only distant relative willing to take her in makes her sleep on the floor, and allows the use of her floor for one or two nights at a time. Taystee returns to prison after committing a new crime with the intent of returning to prison because, ultimately, it was easier than life outside. Although I appreciate OITNB’s attempt at showing how a lack of outside support contributes to the revolving door that is our prison system, I have never, in my years of representing current, former, and future prisoners, met a person who wanted to return to jail. Perhaps my range of experience is too narrow.

One character in the series commits a rather sensational crime. She arrives to court ready to see her public defender, but a private lawyer seduces her into accepting his services — without pay. This is interesting because it is one of only two places in the season where public defenders are mentioned at all. The private attorney preys upon her distrust of public defenders so that he can represent her for his own selfish reasons. I can tell you that the counsel she received was very poor quality.

In the final two episodes of OITNB, four major characters accuse Piper of being a bad person. These people include her fiance, her lover, and her fellow inmates. Their reasons vary, but they all stem from actions by Piper that, at the time, were totally understandable. This occurs simultaneously with a subplot in which a senior prison official teaches a junior corrections officer to stop thinking of the inmates as human beings. It made me wonder how different the prison experience would be if it were not so preoccupied with telling the inmates that they are “bad people.” Bad actions can be corrected; bad people cannot. With the rate of recidivism so high, one almost wonders if those in charge benefit from that revolving door.

Overall, OITNB has truths to offer its viewers about a population that is largely invisible and voiceless. I hope its message reaches lots of other people through the lure of high quality television. If you enjoy reading this blog and are interested in what happens to my clients after they’re my clients, you should check it out.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

To The Wolves…

A client of mine was recently sentenced to 19 years in state prison. His sentencing took place a handful of days after his 18th birthday.

Prior to that, and all during the time I represented this client, he was housed at juvenile hall. Although he was a teenage boy, the district attorney decided to charge him as an adult.

By age 16, my client had made the very grown-up decision to replace his failed high school career with the instant acceptance and gratification he got for having the same tattoos and wearing the same colors as the tough kids in the neighborhood who never looked afraid of the cops, or of anybody for that matter. My client then learned that if he sold weed for them, would get paid both money and weed. His one parent who was not perpetually high on crank worked two jobs; no one lifted a finger to save him.

None of this changes the fact that he swung a knife at two other gang members to keep them at bay while his buddies pummeled another kid, who was also a gang member. But the kid described in the police reports bore little resemblance to the kid facing a felony sentence two years later. The kid who sat beside me was in protective custody after resigning gang membership in the most terrifying and official way possible: by renouncing gang membership when he was booked into the adult county jail on his 18th birthday. My client had his GED and had devoured the copy of Ender’s Game that I had loaned him.

For the next 16.15 years (which is 85% of 19 years, as required by law), my client will be a ward of California’s bloated prison population. For perspective, the Supreme Court recently ordered California Governor Jerry Brown to release another 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year. A federal court in Sacramento had found that, on average, one person per week was dying due to preventable medical reasons, made unpreventable by the fact that California’s prison system was at over 175% of capacity. With the release of 10,000 more prisoners, the prison population will hover at the 137% of capacity ordered by the court.

Who are all of these prisoners? Some of them are terrifying individuals. It should be no surprise that there are some pretty scary people in prison whose crimes garner media attention and inspire harsh sentencing laws, like Three Strikes. But then those laws are used against less-scary people who wind up in prison for decades for crimes such as stealing a bike, or punching a security guard while shoplifting a beer. Many of these laws were passed through ballot proposition, and by overwhelming margins. None of these laws included new taxes to pay for the added expense of more prisoners and, as more and more “lifers” entered old age, more elderly prisoners.

Also, let us not forget that since the California taxpayers decided that they had had enough of funding state hospitals for the seriously mentally ill, the Department of Corrections has become the biggest purveyor of mental health services in the state.

Among the more notorious groups in prison are California’s prison gangs. California’s prisons have themselves been the incubator for violent prison gangs whose associates on the street, especially their impressionable family and neighbors, form the tendrils of the monster that sucks in kids like my client like a hungry giant squid. Voters responded to their Frankenstein by passing the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act by, you guessed it, ballot proposition. This was the law the DA chose to use to have ten years added to my client’s sentence.

These are the forces that have combined to send someone who can’t grow a moustache to live in a locked facility among actual hardened criminals. Although he could have controlled his behavior on the day he was arrested, I fail to see what say he had in any of the surrounding circumstances that, at the time, made a knife fight with gang rivals seem like a good idea.

I also fail to see how a decade-and-a-half in California’s prisons will change those circumstances. Like it or not, people like my client will be our neighbors again, someday. Will his time behind bars make him a better neighbor? Will my client “spend his time regretting his crimes and holding himself accountable for his behavior” like he is supposed to?

This will only be true to the same extent that a dog might learn not to relieve itself indoors by having his nose rubbed in it; unless punishment occurs more or less simultaneously with the crime, the punishment won’t be associated with the crime. Anyone who has successfully completed any prison term, of any length, will tell you that after year 3, 4, or 5, the unique combination of misery, anxiety, violence, and boredom is no longer associated with any specific cause; it becomes suffering without purpose, lesson, or goal.

When my client is released 16 years from now, his neighborhood will either still be dangerous, or will be razed to the ground in order to make room for retail stores and stucco condominiums. The schools will still be failing, and even more job opportunities will have been either shipped overseas or given to machines.

So the only consolation that I can give to my client, on his 18th birthday, is that the world might not change as much as one might expect before his release.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Reasonable Courses of Action for Those Who Might Not Come Home Alive.

“This isn’t a court of justice, son. This is a court of law.” – Billy Bragg

When a jury of six people found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, I found myself utterly unable to respond to the verdict in real time. For those who have spent the past couple of months hiding in a cave with their eyes closed and ears plugged, George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watchman in Florida. Trayvon Martin was a teenage pedestrian who passed through the fiefdom over which Zimmerman stood vigilant against all the “punks” and “assholes” with his concealed 9mm pistol. Martin carried only Skittles and iced tea that he had bought from the store. Within seconds of spotting Martin, Zimmerman called 911 to report that he had seen Martin, in his neighborhood, doing nothing in particular. Although the dispatcher advised caution and restraint, Zimmerman lamented (in the recording of the 911 call) about how “assholes” and “punks” like Martin “always get away” and he decided to pursue. Zimmerman then followed Martin until Martin physically confronted the stranger who was following him for no apparent reason. In response to the nominal danger that he himself provoked, Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

I found myself unable to muster outrage because, frankly, I wasn’t surprised at the outcome. I also found myself unable to have any sort of conversation with anybody about it because those who either lamented or celebrated the verdict suffered from the same core delusion: that Court-With-a-Capital-C is a place for justice to happen.

Anyone who has spent one minute in an actual courtroom understands that a court is a machine; it has moving parts that fulfill their functions within predictable degrees of verve, skill, and enthusiasm. The list of possible outcomes for a case is limited, as are the possible options that the machine’s players can choose from prior to the case’s final outcome. And when the courtroom deputies radio to the basement to send their “bodies” (in-custody defendants) up to a courtroom for their court appearances, we receive a crude reminder of what this machine processes; it processes human beings. At no point during this process will the victims get their loved ones back, nor will this process heal any wounds or scars. Sometimes property is recovered, but more likely it will be repaid pennies on the dollar through the pittance that the defendant earns for his prison labor. At no point along this route does an accused receive the job training, addiction counseling, and/or long-term psychotherapy that would prevent a huge majority of all crime if they were freely available. At what point does anyone expect justice to squish through the sausage funnel at the end of this process?

Every final outcome in a criminal case represents an outcome that the system was designed to produce. Many years of lobbying by the firearms industry and self-defense enthusiasts produced Florida’s self-defense laws. These laws require no retreat and make no issue of who first instigated the violent encounter or why he did so. All a person has to do is claim that he feared for his life and kill the only other witness to the contrary. And when a person does this, faces trial on national television, and walks out the door afterward, the system works exactly the way that it was designed to.

Now, I have made no mention thus far of the races of either Zimmerman or Martin. The system flatters itself fair and impartial because–on paper–the race if the individuals involved should not matter. But if race does not matter, why was 71-year-old Trevor Dooley (African American) denied an acquittal when he claimed that he shot a man thirty years younger, four inches taller, eighty pounds heavier, and did so in self defense?  Why is a black defendant 354 times more likely to be convicted of murder than a white defendant in cases alleging “self-defense?”  A law that claims to be race neutral while producing racial injustice is, regardless of its intent, a racist law. The courts that enforce racist laws produce racist results.

The courts in Florida and elsewhere enforce laws that make it dangerous for young black males to walk home from the store and dare to defend themselves against a stranger who decides within seconds that they are “assholes” and “punks.” This is not justice, but justice is not what these machines produce.

The solution for law abiding citizens who want to come home safely from the store is to stop relying on courts to produce justice. For the past four weeks, a group of students calling themselves the Dream Defenders have been staging a sit-in protest at governor Rick Scott’s office seeking redress for the laws that allowed Zimmerman to legally kill Trayvon Martin; they are trying to stop the gears of the machine with their bodies. In response, Florida house speaker Will Weatherford has announced his intention to hold hearings on Florida’s self-defense laws. The Dream Defenders clearly understand that justice is something that must be sought outside the courtroom.

Please don’t think of this as a tardy Trayvon Martin piece; I prefer to think of this post as a timely piece in support of those actively resisting the systemic racism of our court system as though their lives depend on it.

Their lives do depend on it.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

How do I know if my lawyer is doing a good job?

Dear Norm:

I have a public defender, and I have no idea whether he’s doing a good job for me. In fact, several of the things he does in court make me really, really  nervous. Also, the things he hasn’t done make me really, really nervous. I feel like a kitten floating downriver in a basket and I’d like to know whether I’m headed over the falls. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Concerned Consumer

Dear Consumer:

Condolences on the fact of your pending criminal case. As you now know, an arrest is just the start of a long, complicated process. If you were arrested and taken directly into custody, it probably felt like you were plucked out of the life you thought you were going to lead. Dour gendarmes stuffed your belongings into a locker at the jail. Your fingerprints and DNA samples are now cataloged in a computer database (you know, for those many unsolved murders that you might have done). You had your clothing replaced with an ill-fitting jumpsuit with garish colors that almost hide the stains. The monetary value of your freedom was computed, and if you were lucky enough to make bail, when you returned to your old life you found that everything was different. And that’s if you were lucky enough to make bail. All of this happens on or before the first court date, the arraignment.

If you are in custody, you are entitled to a court-appointed lawyer or public defender, no matter how much money you make. If you post bail after having been appointed a public defender or a court-appointed attorney, the PD’s office can ask for an income reassessment if they think you are hiding assets or otherwise trying to scam the system. This rarely happens, primarily because it is rare to have someone scam the system like that, but know that it is possible. If you live somewhere with a good PDs office and you’re on the cusp of being appointed a lawyer, consider the benefits of staying in a few extra days.

After the first court date, you will meet other parts of the justice machine. For example, you will meet a district attorney. Anyone who is offended by the manner in which the district attorney treats him should remember that a typical DA endures an entire career without ever, ever having a client. A successful prosecutor doesn’t have to be a “people person.” In fact, they are probably successful prosecutors because they aren’t. Don’t take it personally when they forget that the target of their in-court sermons are people, albeit people who might have hit their spouse or sold a dimebag.

It is important to realize here that a district attorney isn’t out to get the “truth.” The district attorney is out to get you. The “truth” is not what happened; the truth is what it looks like happened. It doesn’t matter how guilty you actually are, what matters is how much the evidence makes you look guilty. Good criminal defense lawyers operate with this in mind. Good criminal defense lawyers don’t moralize. I don’t care whether or not you actually did what you have been accused of doing; it’s irrelevant to your defense. Please remember this before you choose who you will talk about your case with. I strongly suggest not talking to the cops or the DA — or anyone, really — before you talk to your lawyer.  Your lawyer will help you avoid saying or doing things that make you appear even more guilty than you already do. Your lawyer is also ethically obligated to advise you what is in your best interest, unlike the district attorney, the cops, and that crazy guy you were housed with who wants to turn snitch.

Furthermore, DAs often refrain from even talking to their victims and civilian witnesses until the latest possible time before trial; this spares them from having to memorialize those conversations and hand them over to defense counsel — especially those inconvenient conversations that reveal weaknesses in the district attorney’s case. After all, a civilian can’t be trusted simply to re-read a police report moments before their testimony and recite it as though it were his honest-to-God memory; it takes at least 16 weeks’ worth of police academy training to master that trick.

No public defender ever, ever wants to admit that despite their best intentions, they too are parts of this machine. That being said, a person’s typical experience with a public defender is probably going to fall into a handful of patterns. Also, that person’s public defender may or may not do certain things that make that person nervous. However, none of the following are cause for concern in and of themselves. Only you know your situation, but I can give you some possible explanations for some common complaints.

I. My public defender only sees me in court.

This is a common complaint, but is not necessarily a reason for concern in the majority of “non-life” felony cases. An experienced public defender can diagnose a typical felony case within a few minutes of conversation. Domestic violence cases in particular follow certain patterns. Is there a pending child custody dispute? Was she drunk? On psychiatric medicine? Who hit who first, and with what? Here, you’ll read the police report and tell me which parts are bullshit. We don’t need to set up another meeting to do this. It can be done in court.

Please don’t take this the wrong way – every client’s case is important. But important does not mean the same thing as complicated.

Here are some things that you should do in court to ensure that your public defender is on top of your case outside of court.

  •  Ask for a summary of every investigative report. You might be unpleasantly surprised by the amount of information that has been collected against you. It will also give you an opportunity to guide your lawyer toward information that might rebut the prosecution’s case.
  •  If you have witnesses (that is, anyone who might have helpful information), give your public defender as recent and accurate contact information as you can. Your public defender will be in mild disbelief when you tell him that this witness is someone you have known for years without, somehow, learning his last name.
  • If alcohol was involved, consider going to AA meetings and keeping an attendance record. AA leaders will ask for sign-off sheets at the end of meetings.
  • Start rounding up whatever character references you want the sentencing judge to read. By character references, I mean letters by people describing all of the good things that you’ve been up to in the community aside and apart from this case. These are, effectively, pleas for leniency to be considered by the judge and district attorney at the time of sentencing.
  •  Feel free to ask whether a proposed plea bargain is a “good deal” before deciding whether to take it. Our advice will be quite candid.

II. My Public Defender is Telling Me to Plea Guilty

First of all, she’s probably telling you to plea “no contest.”

Second, your public defender may just be trying to tell you something. A public defender doesn’t suggest a plea bargain because she is “judging” the client; she is concerned with how the evidence against the client will look to a jury. A public defender will typically recommend a plea bargain if the proposed sentence is appreciably better than a likely post-trial sentence. If a public defender repeatedly insists that a client take a deal, it may not be because the public defender does not understand the client’s problems with the deal. What the public defender might be trying to say is that whatever the client’s problems with the deal, the alternative of trial is not likely to solve those problems.

III. My Public Defender isn’t doing anything for me.

Articulate exactly what you would like your Public Defender to do. He cannot make your case go away. He can try to talk some sense into the DA, but he might not be successful at it. Sometimes, the hard truth is that when you are accused of a crime, it’s because “they” want you in jail.

IV. If I had a private attorney, I would be out of this mess by now.

Not necessarily. I know it seems that celebrity clients can get away with murder and maybe you think you could too, if their lawyer was working for you. This is only fantasy.

You don’t get to go back to your pre-arrest reality. The sooner you can accept this, the better decisions you will make. I had a client so in denial of the evidence against her, she refused a plea-bargain that included no jail time and potential for record clearance. It can be difficult to think logically about the evidence against you. Although it is cliche for a public defender to pressure a client into taking a plea deal, consider whether it might actually be a good deal before you refuse.

I know that what I am saying here can be seen as part of the growing field of public defender apologetics, so how do you know if your public defender or criminal defense lawyer isn’t doing a good job? What are some warning signs? How do you know it’s time to mortgage everything you have  in order to get a defense that will keep you out of jail? Isn’t that exactly what you want to know? Of course, I can’t tell you what you should do. Just about the only legal advice I can give you is not to take anonymous advice from over the internet. But I can give you some thoughts to consider:

Know that any kind of no-custody bargain may be the start of a whole new set of problems. Are you going to be on an ankle monitor? You have to pay for that. Counseling? You have to pay for that. Drug tests? You have to pay for that. If you choose probation, make sure you know the terms of your probation and are able to follow those terms. Be honest with your lawyer about any addictions. If you violate your probation, you might be worse off than if you had just accepted jail time in the first place.

Also, know that a trial is a very stressful experience. And juries are weird. Anything can happen; do you still want to roll the dice? That is your decision alone. I’ve had many cases settle right before I was about to pick a jury. It’s okay to listen to your stomach if it’s trying to tell you something.

Do you know what the evidence is against you or is it that you don’t like what the evidence is against you? You will make better decisions if you are informed about your case and know your real options. You can’t go back in time. You must face this problem head-on.

Keep written records of all court appearances, conversations about your case, everything that has happened. If you do think you are getting Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, this will help your case.

Ask yourself what the potential for downside will be before you take independent action in your case, especially against your lawyer’s advice.

And finally (and this should go without saying), don’t intimidate any witnesses! Not only is it a felony in itself, it never helps the case. It’s better a witness says what they have to say and give the jury the opportunity not to believe them than for you to have to explain why you acted like a guilty person if you’re not. So if you have any friends who might talk to a potential witness on your behalf, tell them to knock it off.

When you are accused of a crime, the best thing you can do is keep quiet and mind your business until it’s over, which may be a very long time.

If you do end up going to trial with your public defender and she does get you a “Not Guilty” verdict, be prepared that the judge may order that you pay for attorney’s fees. Sometimes, the DA will even ask on “our behalf.” Although this is transparently vindictive bullshit, you just ducked all of the worse possible fates. Congratulations!

Good luck out there.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Norm Reviews: Gideon’s Army

 

When assistant public defender Travis Williams promised the camera that he would tattoo the name of every client who lost at jury trial on his back, my first thought was, “He’s going to run out of room.”

This concern had nothing to do with Mr. Williams’ skill or dedication as an advocate for his clients–quite the contrary–but the electric idealism that sustains new public defenders is precious and all-too-temporary. I imagine that bearing each and every trial loss on his body will weigh like a lead weight around his psyche, and the weight can quickly snuff that spark. If Mr. Williams’ trial calendar continues to follow the pace of the murderous meat grinder in which he appears to practice, he may find himself with several dozen names to arrange within his first five years.

Travis is one of three subjects featured in Dawn Porter’s excellent documentary, “Gideon’s Army” which is playing on HBO. Gideon’s Army focuses primarily upon the lives of three public defenders in the American South: Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick. The film also features Jonathan Rapping and the folks at Gideon’s Promise (known formerly as the Southern Public Defender Training Center), who appear to serve as equal parts mentors, senseis, and therapists to the young public defenders in the South who participate in their program.

Travis is our introduction to the world of public defenders, but the film’s climax comes when Brandy Alexander wins a “not guilty” verdict for her client, Demontes Wright, who faced a life sentence because two brothers accused him of taking a small amount of cash from their pizza parlor’s register. Brandy’s story cleanly captures the unique agony of being a public defender with an innocent client; Brandy knows full well that her innocent client could go down at trial. In Georgia, a guilty verdict for this charge meant a life sentence. Mr. Wright had recently resumed his education and looked to be on the verge of getting his adult life started on the right foot until being charged with this offense. His very life was at the mercy of a store clerk who identified Mr. Wright as the robber but admitted on cross-examination that he never really looked at the robber’s face. The state’s case hung entirely on the word of this witness, and across the country, such flimsy evidence is used every day to convict people of crimes. Ms. Alexander literally saved this man’s life; it makes for a stirring ending.

I see why Ms. Porter didn’t want to make Gideon’s Army too depressing, but the happy ending gives the viewer an artificial sense of a young public defender’s efficacy: that is, that the systemic inequities of our justice system can be overcome by idealism alone. Idealism is so featured in the documentary, it is almost a character in itself. Idealism is the true hero of the story.

This touches on a widespread phenomena of the State outsourcing its responsibility to see to it that society functions by relying on idealists or other “faith-based” institutions. This excuses and exonerates the powerful Alphas from their hedonistic money-grabbing because the empathic, bleeding-heart Betas will keep things from slipping too far into decay. And when charity proves insufficient, there is money to be made; for-profit prisons flourish where faith fails. The problem is that this effectively privatizes social services so they are available firstly to those who agree to the agenda of the organization caring for them. Do we really want to distribute justice in the same way we parcel out canned food, clean needles and sleeping cots?

Gideon’s Army is noticeably silent on those inequities in our justice system that cannot be overcome solely through plucky idealism. The system needs public defenders to keep it honest because without them, the system would cheat. This notion is unthinkable to most people, and I had hoped that Gideon’s Army would open a crucial opportunity to begin the process of re-educating those who take justice for granted. I would have loved to have seen Travis cross-examine one of those bent narco cops who insist under oath that his client “consented” to being searched, thereby making the search legal. Prosecutorial misconduct is a leading cause of convictions being reversed on appeal, and despite this, it remains one of the least investigated variety of ethics violation by state bar associations nationwide.

Again, I can see why Ms. Porter focused on the nobility of her subjects and not on the misdeeds of their opponents, but I hope the viewer doesn’t get the false impression that prosecutors and police are free of wrongdoing. Arresting and searching someone without probable cause is just as illegal as robbing a pizza parlor, but cops and DAs are on the side of power; their law-breaking is not only ignored, but most people actively disbelieve its existence. Sanctimonious DAs who overcharge clients simply because they’ve mistaken the rods up their asses for the needle of a moral compass are ruining a life, a family, and a community to a much greater extent than swiping money out of a cash register does.

Public defenders are the only ones holding the line between “well-intended” overzealous prosecution and a police state. Ms. Porter exposes the uncomfortable truth of how thin that line is and how, in some communities, it has effectively already been crossed. For many minority and low-income clients, justice exists only for those that can afford it. Do we really want to live in an America where innocence is for sale?

I understand that my opinion of Gideon’s Army may differ from a layperson’s. As the film itself points out, a mere 15,000 public defenders exist nationwide to represent millions of indigent accused. We are clearly too small a market to be this film’s primary target, not to mention that many of us don’t have a premium cable subscription. At minimum, my hope is that a layperson watching this movie would think to themselves afterward, “That is noble, worthwhile work that these people are doing; maybe we owe it to them to make the job just a little less miserable.”

Without public defenders, justice doesn’t happen. And public defenders deserve the resources necessary to carry out their work. I do not wish to criticize the lawyers featured in Gideon’s Army, but my impression is that the job function they carry out seems more like social work than actual criminal defense. Giving a client a thorough explanation of what is happening so he knows exactly where he is in the process of being screwed is certainly part of the PDs job function, but there’s more to it than that. As a public defender, I am part of a team of lawyers, paralegals, investigators, lab technicians and other experts who work together for the defense. If a PD office can’t afford to test for finger prints that might exonerate a client, then how can it give truly effective assistance of counsel? And I think the harsh truth of the matter is that it cannot. If clients are pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a life-sentence, then the “system” is not working.

I find myself wondering whether the film’s triumphant ending avoided confronting the viewer with the hardest, most bitter truth about our criminal justice system: innocent people can and do go to jail, sometimes for forever. I held my breath during Mr. Wright’s verdict and I felt genuine relief as the “not guilty” was read. I would never, ever wish for any other result for him. But part of me wonders what kind of impact the film would have had if it forced the viewer to watch as an innocent person – with evidence on his side – goes down anyway. Although many people understand, intellectually, that innocent people can and do get convicted, almost nobody knows what it looks and feels like as you watch it happen. Most people believe that those in prison deserve to be there. I can tell you that many of them do not.

At least one Supreme Court justice denies that any innocent person has ever been wrongly convicted and executed in the past century. With this in mind, the lesson that Gideon’s Army teaches us is more urgent than ever.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

A Tourist’s View of County Lock-Up

Burnt hot dog water.

That’s the first thing I smell when I enter any of our county’s jails and the last thing I remember as I walk out. White paint did nothing to prevent the old bricks from absorbing the fetor of thousands upon thousands of high-sodium meals, wheeled through the jail hallways over the course of decades. The stench escapes from the walls and creeps into my suit.

Spring turns to summer, but seasons have no effect on the stale air inside the county’s high-security jail facility.  Since its construction, no breeze has ever entered. Footsteps are the only force to disturb the vapor of poached Spam.

This particular jail site sits 20 minutes or so outside of the city, a trip that can (and frequently does) take up to 40 minutes in heavy traffic. I arrive on a warm morning in mid-May to visit a client who will be starting his trial in less than 48 hours.

I notice the stench even before I notice the harsh surroundings. The walls are white, or were at some point. The floor tile is white, or was at some point. The fluorescent lights above are white, save for a faint hue of blue. For these inmates, every open-eyed moment feels like the middle of graveyard shift at the world’s dustiest hospital.

Each cell block here is separated by an outdoor asphalt path; its vicious heat releases up through my shoes as the sun beats down on my head. It is especially uncomfortable in a suit and tie. However, finding shade comes with the boiled bologna miasma that permeates every enclosed area in the jail.

This is my third attempt at a pre-trial visit. My client will be testifying on his own behalf so I must prepare him for the DA’s cross-examination, and time is running out. My first attempt was with a colleague who would play the role of the DA in the cross, to get him used to a stranger asking him tough questions. But there “were no available interview rooms” so we were turned away. This happened a second time.

I ask the nearest of three lounging correctional officers to see my client, hoping they are not on lockdown and thereby making my trip in vain. I repeat my client’s name three times. The CO shows me to one of the empty interview rooms. The plastic chairs look like grown up Fisher Price furniture, but with bolt loops in the floor with several sets of leg shackles held to it. A maximum security client would have these around his feet for the entirety of my meeting with him. I semi-anxiously bat the chains around with the toe of my shoe until I see my client coming down the hallway; his chains clink heavily but do not echo against the walls.

The meeting with my client goes well. The kid does a good job. He sticks to his story, which fortunately makes sense. I throw myself thoroughly into doing my best DA impression (“So are you saying that YOU’RE the victim here?!”) and temporarily forget the habitat to which my client will return after I leave. When we’re done, I stand, shake his hand as I say goodbye, and turn to leave as quickly as I can hoping my client won’t take my haste the wrong way.

I take deep breaths of fresh air as I walk back to my car, which has been parked uncovered in the afternoon sun. When it’s all over and as I prepare to be slapped by the oven-hot heat when I open the door, I always thank the universe for the good fortune that at least I get to go home.

Respectfully Submitted,
Norm DeGuerre

Journey Through the Sealed Transcript, or Marsden Motions: A “Choose Your Own Adventure” Adventure

“I want a Marsden motion!” my client proclaimed from his seat in the jury box.

When a courtroom is not used for a trial, the jury box is typically used to seat 12-14 inmates, handcuffed in pairs, waiting for their turn to appear on the felony “entry of plea” calendar. The inmate who happens to be handcuffed to my client doesn’t know what a Marsden motion is, but he looks wistfully at the nearby sheriff’s deputy in hopes that he will be unshackled from this man before he has to find out.

When the judge hears the client’s demand, every muscle in his face tenses as he looks at the wall clock and then over at me. “Why can’t you control your client,” the Judge tacitly asks with his glare, “and who told him what a Marsden motion is?”

With an apologetic smile and a shrug, I admit that it was me.

“Sir, I’m sorry you’re not happy with your representation so far,” I had said to my client moments before his audible outburst, “but if you really think that I’m ‘fucking you raw’ because I’m ‘working for the DA,’ then you should tell the judge that you want to make what’s called a Marsden motion and have me fired.”

I told him this because, quite simply, he has the right to know that a Marsden motion is an option a defendant has if his lawyer’s representation is so defective that it effectively violates his right to counsel. Since I work in a county with an exemplary PD system, most Marsden motions are basically an opportunity for the client to lash out a lifetime of problems on the nearest available mammal (and if you’re a PD, that mammal usually happens to be you). I can’t and don’t take it personally.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the judge intones, “we ask that you leave the courtroom for the next few minutes while we take up this matter outside of your presence.”

And the adventure begins!

One by one, the remaining inmates, lawyers, and gawkers leave. Since a Marsden motion requires a ceremonial Airing of Grievances about the client’s representation, attorney-client privileged communications are often divulged. To protect these, the court room is closed to all but the attorney, the client, and the court staff. The transcript is sealed after the motion concludes.

“Sir, I understand that you want to fire your public defender,” the Judge says, tip-toeing between syllables like someone trying to delay an unpleasant hospital visit by going very, very slowly down the hallway. “Tell me more.”

My client proceeds to tell him more. Much, much more. And I start to grow agitated.

I’m not worried about what my client is saying about me. I’ve been “Marsdened” (it’s a verb in PD jargon) before, and even though part of me wishes some had been granted in order to be rid of particularly unpleasant clients, none have been. What does scare me is the possibility of being found “IAC.” That’s when an appellate lawyer looks over a trial transcript and decides that the guilty verdict was due to “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.” Being Marsdened is a rite of passage; IAC is more like last rites.

I am agitated because I know that I will likely still be tasked with representing this client when this is over and he is making my job–the job of defending him–even harder. I visualize what the transcript of this hearing looks like and I wish I could strikethrough the portions that I wish he were not saying, out loud, to the judge.

Did I mention I’ve been Marsdened before? Do you want to know what it feels like to sit through a client’s Marsden motion? Then read on and chose your own Marsden adventure:

If your client is accused of a “domestic” charge, proceed to section I.A.

If your client is accused of auto theft and has been talking to the “jailhouse lawyer” at the jail’s law library, go to I.B.

I.A. Judge, this whole thing is ridiculous. My lady wants these charges dropped completely. I also called her last night from the jail and she told me that she wants the “no contact” restraining order dropped. She’s going to come in here and say that she made the whole thing up because she was drunk and mad at me for cheating on her. Also, she’s bipolar. That means that she lies all the time, right? I saw it on “Dr. Phil.”  Anyway, my dump truck public defender is telling me that what she said to police is a “prior inconsistent statement” that comes in as evidence even if she takes it back. But that’s not true, right? He just wants me to plea because he has too many cases.

I.B. Judge, this public pretender isn’t doing anything for me. I told him that I wanted an attorney. I’m entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but they keep giving me public defenders instead. Also, I heard in my dorm unit at the jail that if they don’t bring you to court within 48 hours of your arrest, they have to dismiss the case. Well sir, I was arrested on a Friday, and I know that it was still Friday because when the police pulled me over in that stolen car, I looked at the dashboard clock and saw that it was 11:48 p.m. I didn’t have my first court date until Monday, so my case should be dismissed. At least that’s what I heard.

I also wrote a motion myself; it’s about voluntary intoxication. I read in the law library that being voluntarily intoxicated can sometimes be a defense. Well, I can tell you that I was TOTALLY voluntarily intoxicated up when all this happened. I remember the six-pack, I remember…whatever that stuff was in the pipe they were passing around. I remember having the slim jim and the shaved key, but I don’t remember actually using them to take the car. I do remember speeding away from the police, and I remember trying to swerve around the cop who was trying to stop me, but I don’t remember anything about supposed “threats” I made to “make him my bitch” with his nightstick. There’s more and it’s all in my motion, but this dump truck won’t file it. I think he’s working for the DA. He says that he won’t file  it because it has “incriminating statements,” or because it contradicts the confession that I supposedly gave afterward, that I don’t remember. I don’t know, he can’t seem to get his story straight about why he won’t file it for me.

Also, no one read me my rights when they arrested me. They were supposed to tell me that I had the right to remain silent. That means I get a dismissal, right? … Well, no, they never actually asked me any questions … No, I didn’t actually say anything after I was arrested. But I’m supposed to be read my rights! I need a REAL lawyer who knows these things to get me out of here!

Lifting an eyebrow, the judge looks to me and asks, “Mr. DeGuerre, how do you care to respond?”

If this is your first court appearance with this client, go to section II.A.

If you’ve already discussed each and every one of these things with your client, go to section II.B.

II.A. Your Honor, it is absolutely, positively true that I have not yet done anything for this client. I have not seen him at the jail. I have not called his baby’s mom on his behalf to keep her from throwing out his stuff. I haven’t looked into whether the police search of his pockets was legal because he’s not charged with possessing anything illegal; the charged crime is violent and happened in the police officer’s presence. Quite frankly, I just got this file two days ago; only by breaking the laws of physics could I have gone back in time and done all the things that my client seems to think that I should have done before today. Given that I obey the laws of physics at all times, I trust that I can represent this client to his satisfaction if given…some time, any time, at all.

II.B. Your honor, my client demanded after his first court date to receive his “discovery packet.” He seems to be in continued disbelief that his “discovery packet,” at this stage, consists entirely of the police report that I have reviewed with him several times. He claims the police report has “got nothing” on him because it doesn’t include fingerprints, DNA, or surveillance video; it contains nothing more than statements of witnesses who said that they saw him do it. I explained to him that these are still “evidence.” I explained that public defenders are, in fact, attorneys. I explained that I do not work for the DA simply because I told him what the DA’s offer was. I explained to him that hiring the “real lawyer” that his mother has been talking to may or may not get him a better deal, but that she’s welcome to get a second mortgage to pay his retainer in order to find out.

The judge makes eye contact with each of us one more time. He has the information he needs in order to make a decision.

If this is a judge who, in the past, has threatened to hold you in contempt for objecting during the DA’s closing argument, go to section III.A.

If this is a judge who is deathly afraid of the client deciding to represent himself, go to section III.B.

III.A. Sir, I assure you that Mr. DeGuerre is a devoted advocate. He’s a fabulous attorney, and you’re lucky to have him. The fact that you get his services free of charge is one of those curious luxuries that comes with having a free society. The defendant’s Marsden motion is denied.

III.B. Sir, I completely understand your concerns. It sounds as though Mr. DeGuerre needs to make himself more available to you by phone. Perhaps you should call during his lunch hour, when he is at his desk eating the sandwich that he brought from home. And really, Mr. DeGuerre, when I was a public defender, I saw my clients at the jail before every single court date. You say you got the file late Monday, but today is Wednesday. It doesn’t matter that this was so long ago that the PD’s office had six lawyers and five clients: no excuses.

It also sounds like Mr. DeGuerre can make just a little more effort in finding that transient, homeless witness you say can prove your innocence; you’d be amazed at what public defender investigators can dig up just by knowing that his name is “Mike Something.” I’m also going to suggest to Mr. DeGuerre that he make more efforts to negotiate with the District Attorney; Mr. DeGuerre, you should keep an open mind when the DA tells you that your client is a “monster” who should plead “as charged.” If the DA says that, and you agree, she will not ask for the maximum. You should think of that as a starting place for negotiations! That being said, I will give Mr. DeGuerre leeway to perform his due diligence. We can revisit this issue down the road if we need to. For now, the defendant’s Marsden motion is denied.

Congratulations! You made it! How do you feel?

If you happened to choose III.A. and would like a copy of the proceedings as proof of the only nice thing that judge has ever said to you, then you are out of luck. That record is sealed.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Through the Looking Glass or What the Fortune Teller Taught Me About Burnout

Once upon a time, in the days after Young Norm had discovered girls but before girls had discovered Young Norm, a carnival came to a certain small town in California.

Between the henna tattoo tent and the tent that celebrated local history through diorama projects lay the tent of a fortune teller. She clambered from her tent at the sight of impressionable prospects and offered to tell our futures. She then noted the quizzical eyebrow raise that I gave her.

“I know you think I’m full of shit,” she mumbled while holding a Camel between her gums.

Indeed, I did think that she was full of shit. And at that moment, I knew her to be a true seer so I handed her 90 minutes of fast-food wages and gazed into her crystal ball. The results were strangely telling.

I saw the rewards of a college graduation. My bachelors in liberal arts and complete lack of familiarity with the “real world” had crafted me into either the world’s most average high school teacher or the world’s most overqualified barrista.

I then saw the rewards of an even higher education, law school, as a smug over-achiever filled with false confidence believing the economy would stop sucking once I earned a JD.

I heard the sighs of relief from my family; He’s a lawyer now! He’s going to go work for the county defending criminals! Not only does he get to be a lawyer like the kind you see on TV, but he also has a stable government job and a constructive outlet for those anarchist tendencies that used to get Young Norm into so much trouble.

Fast forward to my second felony trial tour. My boss is giving me serious felony cases now, ones I can’t talk about in polite company. Gone are the days when I represented “dudes” who received “child porn” under the guise of boob shots from their 17-year-old girlfriend. Now, I’m receiving recorded interviews where a 7-year-old is calling my client “the bad man” before telling police what he did to her. I’m defending kids who stab each other for wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood. They’re charged as adults and getting sentenced to the very prison system that created California’s current street gang problem.

I see the effects of the systemic underfunding of public education in my student loan bills; they persist even though I pay more on them each month than my rent. Yes, I still rent. My father, with only a high school diploma, was choosing a second, “more suitable” home by my age.

At least my wife still suits me just fine.

I see myself doing a closing argument. I burnished my presentation to a professional shine over the course of a semi-sleepless weekend, nursing my sanity with coffee and encouragement from loved ones. I see the prosecutor stumble-fucking his way through his closing and then his rebuttal, lacking any sort of polish, logic, or reference to actual witness testimony but containing more than enough fear-mongering and judgmental outrage to get him a win. My “guilty” rate soon surpasses that of almost any district attorney.

I see row upon row of prison cells. Cells in Soledad, Folsom, Kern, and Pelican Bay filled with men who had at least one thing in common: I was their last lawyer.

After twenty years I catch a glimpse of retirement. The voters had become angry that the private sector had busted their unions, liquidated their private pensions, and relocated manufacturing and production to “more efficient” economies. They have grown bitter at those who decided to work for the government, now jealous of a salary that was once less than half the private sector equivalent. I am now devoid of any hope the economy will ever stop sucking. I see myself not being able to give my grandchildren the kinds of Christmases my own grandparents gave to me.

“Jesus,” the fortune teller cackles after lighting another cigarette and returning the pack to her bra, “Is that really what you want?”

Actually, this story never happened. I never paid for a fortune teller, and she gave me no preview of the doubts and worries that I now have in the middle phase of my adulthood. The visions are real, but the timing is very recent.

I am currently in the midst of my first truly serious felony trial tour. And so many of my cases cannot resolve, for a variety of reasons. Client is crazy. DA is insufferable. And sometimes my client just didn’t do it.

And so I set these cases for trial, often without waiving time, as I gain nothing by postponing the inevitable. New cases come in continuously, and so the cases that cannot be settled must be tried as soon as possible simply to reduce my caseload.

And in this context, I see how burnout comes upon a public defender. Despite my most well-meaning, competent efforts, and despite that I typically outclass the average district attorney, my client goes down like a brick. Some days, I feel like all I’ll have to show for it upon retirement is a sizable section of the bloated prison population that had me as their lawyer at some point in time.

So is this really what I want? Courtroom battle still carries a thrill that, I think, leaves me with more energy than it takes. My family and loved ones are always there. And I have a deep, abiding belief that service to one’s community is in one’s own best interest.

And convincing twelve random people of any given client’s innocence is easier for me than convincing a potential employer (and myself) that I would rather review contracts at my desk for 90 hours a week.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre