Writing About Public Defender Visits

Visits to all of our field sites in Sociology 215 are meant to do three things:
(1) Encourage you to think about readings and class topics and to use those materials in your discussion of the field experience;
(2) Raise issues for you about participation in community life and political activity and to discuss how engagement and social responsibility, or disengagement and social irresponsibility happen;
(3) Give you field experiences to prepare you for other courses that will have more intensive field experiences, like Anthropology/Sociology 201.
Your paper is not meant to be long. Three or four pages is enough. You also should not try to write about all of the themes given below. Pick your focus, state it, and give lots of description and detail to develop your points.
One of the most important things about the time you spend observing is that you should not be passive. Be involved in activities and, most importantly, talk to people. Try especially to meet people other than the hosts who bring us into the settings. In addition to the main participants in the program (the kids in a school), seek out and talk to some of the people who are more in the background---office people, family members, custodial staff. Look at the questions given for each assignment and ask people in the setting what they think about the issues that are listed.

 

Visiting the Public Defender

The Public Defender is employed by the county court to provide legal defense for those accused of crimes who cannot afford to pay for an attorney. Eligibility for this program is determined through what is called a "means test", where the attorney asks the defendent questions about his or her income and resources and then uses a set of standard criteria to determine whether the person is eligible for publicly provided legal help. In this experience, you will have contacted the Public Defender and arranged to spend part of a day with that person. The Public Defenders should have picked a day for your visit when interesting things are expected to happen. Often these will be days when sentencing hearings are held. Generally the trial will already have been held and most of the offenses involved are relatively minor, of the sort that the District of the Peace hears rather than the higher ranking judge who also sits in the courthouse. The Public Defender will explain the case or cases that are happening that day, then you will attend the hearing, often meeting with the judge and the other attorneys and parole officers involved in the case, then the Public Defender will meet with you again to year your questions and discuss the case.

This visit is most relevant to the readings in SOCI 215 around the subject of law enforcement that we will do on December 2 and December 4. You will probably visit with the Public Defender earlier in the semester and it would be good for you to look at these readings before you spend your time with him. Particularly relevant are John Irwin's "Managing Rabble" and Abraham Blumberg's "The Practice of Law as a Con Game". You will see aspects of the criminal justice system at work that bear directly on those two articles.

Objectives of the Visit

1. Settings we observe are chosen because a lot is going on. In some of the settings we are observing a small group of people but we think about lots of connections within our own lives. In other settings there are many different kinds of people, doing different things, suggesting different meanings to us. Your visit with the Public Defender will offer both of these qualities. You will meet significant people and hear surprising things. One objective of this visit is for you to recognize the number of different things that are going on simultaneously in this setting.

2. You will have a chance in this setting to see how the courts and the legal profession operate behind the scenes. Blumberg's article points out that attorneys, judges, and parole officers work together day after day on different cases. Although the system is supposed to be adversarial and attorneys are supposed to be advocates for their clients, attorneys are also working in a cooperative system with people in other legal roles. The Public Defender is happy to talk to you about how the cooperative relationships in the court house affect the way cases are developed and handled. One objective of this exercise is for you to think about the model of the criminal justice system you brought with you when you came to the court house and how what you see challenges those prior expectations.

3. As you talk to people in the courts you may realize that the individuals who are supervised by the court have long term relationships with the officials of the court. You may also learn that other people in the families of these individuals have been supervised by the court. You can talk to the Public Defender, the Justice of the Peace, and others about the circle of families and individuals who have ongoing relationships with the court. Most of us do not have these ongoing relationships; only some community members enjoy this kind of ongoing involvement. If you read Irwin's article, "Managing Rabble", you get the sense that an important function of police and the courts is just to keep troublesome people in the community from bothering everyone else. This exercise lets you see this process at work and allows you to reflect on the consequences of that reality.

What You Should Write

a. In all of our writing assignments, one task for you is simply to tell about your experience. Write about what you did, what happened, who you talked to, what caught your attention and what you learned.

b. This is a course in Human Services meant to focus on broad issues so you want to think about the broader implications of what you see. In particular, talk about what the law is, how the process of criminal hearings ought to work, and how what you saw relates to your expectations. You are likely to witness plea bargaining and you may see court hearings where the results seem to be set before the hearing happens. Does what you see fit your model of a just trial system?

c. One thing emphasized in our class is that often there are several ways to view specific events. In the court system, we often encounter different ways to frame why it is that someone has broken the law. Some people will present law breaking as bad behavior and as a moral violation. Some people will talk about law breaking in terms of an individual's need for education and rehabilitation. Some people will talk about an individual's law breaking in essentially medical terms, as a manifestation of mental illness or addiction. Defendents may talk about their lawbreaking as a simple misunderstanding or misadventure. Pay attention to the way different individuals you meet explain law breaking and contrast those explanations. Do you find them mutually consistent? How do you account for any inconsistencies you notice.