A Light in the Dark
As a public defender in the Bronx, I had a client who is now a good friend. When I met her, she was using crack, and was drunk every day. She had lost more siblings than I could count to murder, AIDS, and drugs. She was in her mid-40's and had a daughter, but their relationship was strained because of my client's drug and alcohol use. She had a prior felony conviction. She lived in a dark room in some old man's apartment. She was frustrated, emotional, difficult, and scared.
But she was also was warm, funny, and full of love. I liked her right away.
She was accused of helping to facilitate a drug sale. I represented her for two years. She relapsed many times. She came to court late. She came to court drunk. I could smell the alcohol on her breath standing next to her before the judge.
My social worker and I found her a drug program on a voluntary basis. She went for a few days. Then she left. We found her another. Same thing.
She didn't want to be in court. Each court date she was afraid the judge would throw her in jail. She would cry outside the courtroom.
My client was scared of being mandated by the court to a program, knowing that if she failed to complete it --- if she left, if she tested positive for drugs, if she was rearrested --- she would face mandatory prison time upstate. She also felt the situation was unfair, that all she had done was help another drug addict find a drug seller ("I don’t sell, but see that guy on the corner, with the red jacket, talk to him"), in the hopes of scoring some drugs for herself, and didn’t think she should have to plead guilty to selling drugs. But she was also scared of trial, and the lengthy prison time she faced if convicted by a jury, and the thought of coming to court every day to face a jury made her anxious.
The case was in drug court. The Assistant District Attorney wanted her to plead guilty to a felony and enter an in-patient drug program for 18 to 24 months. When my client balked, the ADA presented its case to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment. I convinced the ADA to withdraw it from the grand jury panel to give my client more time in drug court to accept a possible program. For months, she went back and forth. The judge's patience was being tested, and the District Attorney's Office was livid that she couldn't decide what to do, and kept threatening to indict the case and take any offers off the table.
Once I had to drive her to a hospital so she could enter a detox facility. Another time my investigator and I picked her up at home and waited hours for her to be accepted into a short-lived drug program.
Eventually, with an indictment pending, she was given one last chance at a long-term outpatient program. She decided that her fear of trial was greater than her fear of failing out of the program. And more importantly, with the help of her daughter and an ex-boyfriend, she decided she needed help. I told her that she could do it, and that she'd break my heart if she didn't complete it.
But she did complete it. With flying colors. Two years later, she finished the program without missing a class or an appointment, without testing positive, without missing a court date, and without getting rearrested. Not easy for an long-time alcoholic, living in a community where temptation abounds and the police are everywhere. While at the program, she became a model participant, and began speaking to women in prison about overcoming addiction and making positive changes in one's life. At her sentencing, I stood by, relieved and proud, while she received her certificate of completion, after which she was allowed to withdraw her felony plea and reenter a misdemeanor plea with credit for any time she had served in jail. She no longer had prison time hanging over her head. I joined a celebration at narcotics anonymous in honor of her, and felt humbled.
As challenging as her addiction is for her, and as admirably as she confronted it, her battles are long from over, and society is as harsh as ever.
It took her a number of months to find any sort of work. The road to employment is difficult enough as a poor African-American woman with little formal education, currently taking GED classes, but with a criminal record, it becomes outright impassable. She finally found a part-time job working four hours a day, five days a week, at $9 an hour. She arrived 20 minutes early every day. After six weeks, she was fired without explanation. Now she is looking for work again.
She cannot afford her rent, and is looking for public housing, but, again, her criminal record (all for nonviolent offenses) limits her options. She is trying to do the right thing, trying to become gainfully employed, trying to further her education, trying to find affordable housing, trying to spend time with her daughter, and, most of all, trying not to drown herself in the bottle by remaining in her program, but society is not making it easy, or even somewhere in between easy and frighteningly difficult, to move forward. Even after all she has gone through, there is no relief in sight.
There are thousands of people from poor communities in New York, and around the country, like her, except without any support, without family members or friends who cared, who have stood before insensitive judges, been represented by jaded, overworked public defenders, and prosecuted by self-righteous prosecutors, who are now sitting in jail, day after day, waiting to be released by a criminal justice system that does not care about them, that does not prepare them for a more positive transition back into society, that sees its inmates as invaluable only in terms of helping prisons get built and stay filled, thereby helping wallets stay filled, and voting districts stay filled, and jobs in prisons and law enforcement and District Attorney Offices and judicial seats stay filled. Welcome to our stupid, costly, inhumane war on drugs, for which we, especially those who make money off of it legally, and all those politicians who refuse to address it, should be ashamed.
But next to them stands my client, who reached out and snatched her dignity back from the merciless grip of the criminal justice system, who defied the odds, who represents hope and perseverance and strength in the face of cynicism and apathy. Thank the heavens for people like her.