For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Monday, March 14, 2011

Crossing State Lines: Public Defense Work in NOLA

While I have done pro bono work in a few different places, I had never had the opportunity to do public defense work in another state. As such, the most striking thing I learned during my time in New Orleans was how much indigent defense services can vary across jurisdictions. Specifically, I learned that the variances in sentencing among jurisdictions can have a profound effect on the environment and mindset among the defenders, the prosecutors, and especially the clients. This was made evident to me when I went to visit a client who was facing a felon in possession charge, which only involves the client having any kind of felony on his record, and being found with a gun anywhere around him. When his attorney informed him that this charge now, as of recently, carried a mandatory minimum of 10 years with a maximum of 20 years. When the client heard this news, his facial expression and body language completely changed and you could literally feel the hope leave the room, in spite of the fact that he actually had a fightable case.

The extremely rigid sentencing, combined with the stories of prosecutorial and police misconduct, and overall lack of resources, have created an environment with an even smaller amount of room for hope than is normally provided in the realm of indigent defense. Despite this state of things, however, I noticed and was inspired by the steadfastness with which the attorneys, students, and even the clients held on to that small amount of hope. While the resources and manpower were at an all time low given the complications created by Hurricane Katrina (demonstrating just how many facets of life it touched), the goal of justice for our clients remained strong. Overall, I was inspired while I was in New Orleans. Inspired by the attorneys.

Lauren Gebhard


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