I don't usually write about my job as a public defender. For one, you would simply not believe some of the things I see. The courtroom is a surreal, odd place and a heartbreaking one as well.
But, sometimes, I have to try and make sense of the criminal justice system. It does not make sense most days. It tries to. With the Penal Code, it is codified and the law becomes objective. But it really is not. It is people doling out the justice ultimately, and as a result, justice becomes random.
Most days, I do a job working within a broken system. One day, a petty theft with a strike prior can send a young man with a lower than average IQ to prison for five years and the next day, that same crime is worth no more than a year. I have learned what the word relative means in practice. Because everything is relative. The things we think of as wrong, immoral and illegal as a society, and the punishment those crimes merit, change with the wind. Don't misunderstand me, I am overjoyed that the recent proposition passed making most drug and petty theft crimes misdemeanors. It just took too long.
Why did the proposition pass? I think it took us seeing as a society that building jails and prisons is expensive, too expensive. We are creating bands of misfit toys and we need islands to house them in. Those islands cost millions and the upkeep costs billions. It took us seeing as a society that programming works because maybe, just maybe, these misfits can be fixed? Or helped? Or god forbid I utter the word, rehabilitated?
I believe in the goodness of people. I am an eternal optimist, and that is how I do this job. I believe, sincerely, with all my heart, that people will do the right thing if given the right opportunities. But if people only have bad choices to choose from, they will make bad choices.
Do rich people steal from the supermarket? Rarely. Because they have the money. People steal when they are desperate. When I was struggling to get by through law school and didn't pay my bills, it was because I did not have the money. I could not get a private loan to save my life. And when I didn't have money for food, I clipped coupons and borrowed money from family and friends. I was lucky I had family and friends to borrow grocery money from. I didn't have to make a bad choice.
Not everyone is so lucky.