No way home.
In my line of work, there are so many problems on a systematic level that I often feel helpless at the end of the day. “Where do I even start?” is a question I often ask myself. The problems seem insurmountable. Impossible. But, as someone told me over the weekend at a glitzy Brooklyn wedding where I realized my line of work makes me terrible company for parties, “you have to start somewhere.” And I guess technically, I have already started “somewhere.” During the last three years as a public defender in Vermont, I’d like to think I’ve made a difference in a few people’s lives. And maybe even a few, albeit minor, changes on a systematic level. But there is so much left to do. And so now, I am also starting here, in the hopes that my stories can strike a chord with others. I’ve got to start somewhere, even if I ultimately believe there needs to be a revolution.
So, here I am. Today was a typical day in that nothing about it was predictable and it was a cluster-fuck. This morning I met with the “Defender General” who happened to stop by our office. We brainstormed how we are going to deal with the judiciary’s newest pet project: video arraignments. I will set this aside for today. But that is a battle I am planning to fight.
The afternoon I spent in court. I was only supposed to have “quick” hearings, but lodgings were backed up so I stepped up to help. In Chittenden County, we have what are known as “out of county lodgings.” Per some Vermont judiciary administrative B.S. (which now that I think of it, I am not entirely sure what the policy says — note to self find that policy), when someone is arrested in a county that does not do lodgings that day, they transport the defendant to Burlington to be “lodged” or arraigned and released. This sounds all fine and good and efficient, but what this means for the real, live human defendants (yes — criminal defendants are in fact humans, I think people forget this sometimes), is that they have been brought many miles away from their home and are released with no way to get back home. Vermont is not exactly the glowing beacon of public transportation, but even if there is a bus that can get an “out-of-county lodging” even close to near where they came from, there is no money for bus passes. So, we are often left to either say, “too bad so sad,” or just reach into our own wallets and pull out the money for the bus fare (which we are told we are not supposed to do, but do anyways because we are public defenders and, a) care deeply about clients and b) hate rules and following them).
So this great system left me outside of the courtroom late this afternoon with a young kid from Queens, New York with no phone, no money, and no way home. Luckily, my co-worker was able to provide him cash for a bus pass that will get him back to Queens. Had it not been for her, I’d hate to think what he might do or have to resort to doing, to just get home. I was also left with a fifty-something man who had to resort to calling his elderly father about an hour away to ask him for a ride.
The system figured out only how to get my clients to the courthouse and arraign them, but no one else cares what happens to them after that. I suppose that might be a good analogy for the whole system. But either way, it always makes me angry that these people are abandoned at the courthouse with no way home.