Women of Wednesday: Prya Murad on Eliminating the Cage and the Critical Importance of Public Defenders

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Prya Murad, 26, Attorney, Assistant Public Defender Office of the Public Defender, 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

I defend the indigent criminal accused against criminal charges brought by the Government. In a criminal case, the Government uses its power and its resources against one individual. I have the privilege of standing next to and speaking on behalf of that one individual. Additionally, I exclusively represent people who would not otherwise be able to afford a lawyer.

The importance of the work cannot be understated. Without public defenders, the majority of people stuck in and out of our criminal courts would be left without attorneys. Criminal charges (and crime, in general) disproportionately effect the poor and the disenfranchised. They are just as entitled to excellent advocacy as anyone else.

I don’t care who you are, what you look like, how much money you make, and what you did or did not do — no one gets to treat you like you are not a human being.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

As young lawyer, I have found it difficult to have the confidence to really push back against prosecutors and judges. Anyone that knows me knows that there is no lack of ego in this gal, but it is hard — even for big talking egomaniacs like myself — in those first few months to have the courage to stand between the judiciary and the Government and your client and make sure that your client’s interests are heard. I’m one of those people who, for better or for worse, likes to be liked. In court, when you stick up for your client, you can feel that you are just an “inconvenience” to the Government and often to the judge. I hated that feeling. I spoke with my friend and mentor, Amy Thompson at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, about how I was feeling and she said: “That’s when you know you’re doing your job. Otherwise, they would just railroad your client.” I really took her words to heart and it made for a more effective and, frankly, more enjoyable law practice.

3. What do you need to continue your work in the way you envision?

Public Defender Offices are underfunded across the country. The amount of money and resources allocated to indigent criminal defense makes abundantly clear how important (or not) the Government believes defending the poor is. I am very lucky to work in an office with great investigators, assistants, and administration. I sincerely feel supported in my work. Unfortunately, all offices do not have that kind of support. If they don’t have the money to recruit great lawyers, hire investigators, etc., they can’t do their job effectively.

On a personal level, it can get exhausting defending my job to even my most progressive friends. For example, it is so frustrating to have to constantly defend my feminism. Criminal defense attorneys represent people accused of domestic battery, sexual battery and assault, child abuse, and a host of other “unpopular” crimes that are seemingly incongruent with feminist causes. Don’t let those feelings of anger against the perpetrators of violence against women make feminism so black-and-white. Feminists have historically advocated on behalf of the poor and minorities. These are the people sitting accused in our criminal courtrooms. They have often traumatic histories and unstable lives. Regardless of what they may or may not have done, they are entitled to fairness. Advocating on behalf of fairness and justice for the accused is not a dismissal of victims. It is due process. Moreover, understanding the lives of the accused, many of whom are victims are violent crimes themselves, will help us to understand why this violence occurs and develop effective solutions that do not rely on throwing people in cages to solve problems that are the result of centuries racism, poverty, sexism, and classism.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

Think about the accused. These are people with hopes and dreams and families and jobs. They are not so different from me and you. If you believe in criminal justice reform, do not let the anger you have against the accused cloud your beliefs about effective reform. A vindictive system will never be fair and it will always punish the poor.

Research the judges, public defenders, and state attorneys you are voting for! Judges have so much power. Ask your lawyer friends about what they know about different candidates. We know a lot of inside scoop and would love for people to listen to us come election time.

Stop blaming public defenders! If I have to read one more article shitting on us “overworked, underpaid, too busy for their clients” public defenders, I am going to scream. We are overworked. We are underpaid. We didn’t do this job for the comfort of a glamorous lifestyle and 9–5 law practice. We did it because we care with all of our hearts about people who our Government has forgotten. The vast majority of the smartest, most hard working, talented trial lawyers I know are public defenders. Of course some are better than others, as with any profession, but this PD-blaming is misguided and misplaced. If you are angry about criminal justice policies (as you should be), look to the Government.

5. What is your favorite quote?

A personal favorite these days:

“One day, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to look back at American criminal justice at the dawn of the 21st century and history is going to be our judge and is not going to judge us well. We have degraded our fellow human beings. We have often selectively applied this degradation to poor people and to racial minorities. We have eroded civil liberties and all to no good end. We are less safe and we are less free as a result of the dysfunction in our system and some day somebody’s going to ask ‘well, what did you do?” and if your answer is that ‘I participated by making arguments that helped lock people up and making arguments against expansive interpretations of the Bill of Rights’ then I respectfully suggest that history is not going to judge you kindly.” — Paul Butler, Professor at Georgetown University Law Center