Here is a reprint of my column from the July, 2009 issue of La Crosse Magazine.
One of my practice areas is criminal defense. When people find this out, they often ask “How can you defend criminals?” I can understand the question. Crime is a real problem, a social ill that brings loss and hardship to almost everyone at some point in their lives. So it’s natural, when you hear someone is accused of a crime, to see that person as responsible for all that suffering. Fair enough.
But when you think “criminal,” chances are you are thinking of someone who is dangerous, violent, malevolent. True, there are monsters like that out there, but they are relatively rare. I’ve met about five in my career. The truth is that most people accused of crimes don’t live up to the public image of the word “criminal.” Rather, they fall into one of three categories.
A lot of people charged with crimes just made a stupid mistake. Maybe had one too many and got into an accident. Possessed some pot in college. Got in a fight. Stole from an employer with the intent of repaying. Temptation plus a momentary lapse in judgment can land an otherwise good person in a lot of trouble. For these folks, just being accused is humiliating, and the possibility of conviction destroys their plans for their future. They immediately realize what they did was wrong, and are at no risk to ever reoffend.
Another major source of criminal charges is addiction. Many of the folks I help are people who got addicted to drugs or alcohol, and are living the consequences. Addiction is a parasite. It lives in the part of the brain where a good upbringing used to be and makes the person a slave to getting high. There are a lot of ways to get in trouble due to substance abuse: petty theft – these days identity theft, domestic violence, drunk driving, disorderly conduct, and of course possession.
A third large group of the criminally accused is the mentally ill. The under-diagnosis and under-treatment of conditions like bipolar disorder cause people to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. This creates a cycle of addiction that leads down the path of poor judgment and impulsive behaviors. A frequent symptom is irrational rage, eventually leading to domestic violence arrests. Another result is unemployability, leading to homelessness and the crimes that come from trying to survive on the streets.
I think it is worth noting that two of the major causes of crime are actually medical conditions. Addiction and mental illness can be far more effectively treated by a doctor than a prison warden. If you want to lower crime, support healthcare reform. Certainly, there are those who deserve to go to prison – the unrepentant, the sociopaths – but the prisons are full of people for whom in-patient treatment would be a better – and surprisingly cheaper – option.
So, when people ask me how I can represent people accused of crime, I tell them most of the people I represent aren’t criminals. They may have made a mistake, or they may suffer from an illness, but they aren’t evil. I am reminded that Jesus, himself accused of crimes, forgave the condemned criminal hanging beside him. I like to think, when I see those WWJD bumper stickers, that helping the innocent, the repentant and the suffering is the right thing to do.