It is 8:17 PM at Union Station in Washington D.C. Today was the last day of SHECP Conference at Washington & Lee University. We left the campus at around 3 P.M and got here around 7. I am still waiting for my midnight bus to go to New York City, then I must catch a flight to go home from John F. Kennedy airport. It’s a long trip ahead of me.

I was overwhelmed by three weeks in Arizona followed by two months in New York and then three days in Virginia. Multiple times I felt like I did not have a chance to reflect about what I have done.

Five-hour layover in D.C gave me enough time to think about of what had happened in the last three months. I left the closing conference with many thoughts about this summer, but mostly whether I want to be a lawyer or not.

“How many of you have taken an economics class? Or politics class?” That was how I opened my presentation at the conference. As I expected, many people in the room raised their hands. I continued, “good, because I never took one.” Everyone laughed.

I was not surprised that everyone here took at least one course about economics or politics. It was a law session. Many of us worked at Public Defenders Services and some even clerked for judges. Everyone have experience working with criminals and in fact, I was the only one here that worked in civil litigation. Many of other interns have had such a wonderful experience working with criminals, investigators, and public defenders and thus, they clearly had a better understanding of mass incarceration and how the system works. My internship definitely has given me an amazing experience but throughout two months, I felt my civil experience did not have anything to do with the theme of the conference this year. I never met with a criminal or involved in any criminal case.

In my presentation session, of course the public defenders service interns stood out. They are the stars of the conference this year. The speakers are also accomplished public defenders and experienced prosecutors and they gave us a bigger and clearer picture of the system. I was amazed by their enthusiasm in law reform and by their vision and belief in us. James Forman Jr. and Paul Butler are exceptionally talented lawyer and although they are in opposite positions, their values and belief are met here. Both are also victims of the legal system which was based on slavery, capitalism, and more importantly, fear. It’s a fear of power, fear of something that was supposed to protect the people but instead, it put more and more people behind bars. It’s a complete circle and neither Dr. Forman Jr. or Dr. Butler can end it.

It was not until Robin Steinberg’s speech that I found my role in this circle. Few years ago, Ms. Steinberg represented Wendy, a woman who was charged with multiple felonies, she was taken her parental right and fought hard to prove her innocence. “Isn’t Wendy an example of what we think that if we fight hard, we will get the justice? No, it’s not” says Ms. Steinberg. Wendy is an example of how this circle is more complicated that it appears to be. Even after she got out of jail, she’s still suffering from nightmares and the pressure from bills and debts. She feared for her kids that some days, they go to school and may not come back.

Wendy is an example of something else, and I consider it luck. She was only one of the few who escaped the system but then found herself trapped in another one. It’s a system of welfare, of predatory lending practices, and even of something as small as a box. It’s a tiny box on every job application “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

At NYLAG, I have encountered with multiple cases in which families suffered with their finance because a member has been in jail. They depend on Social Security benefits, on worker’s compensation and food stamps. They can’t find a job and if they did, that would not be enough to pay their bills.

Being poor is already a crime itself. In one of our task force meetings, one attorney told us how a judge favored our opposing counsel because our client, Jane, had some disrespectful behaviors in court. Jane was one of the few clients that we decided to go on full representation. She has a tax liens foreclosure in which she had paid everything, but is still in foreclosure and debt because of the attorney’s fees. And let me correct, not her own attorney’s fees but the opposing one’s. She owed a lawyer who did not even represent her.

In a judgment from court, it has been decided that the judge was in favor of the plaintiff and therefore, Jane was responsible for any fees. The attorney’s fee was outrageous, $16,000, even higher than her original debt.  

When our attorney appealed, and asked the opposing attorney what the money was used for, the judge was angry. She must have thought that we did not respect her decision. However, only the judge and the opposing attorney have seen that document while we did not. We still don’t know why the attorney fees was $16,000 and why it still let the plaintiff to continue with foreclosure while the debt has been paid fully.

Our client Jane usually struggled with money. She often had to borrow her friends and other family members a lot of money to pay her debt. As soon as she thought she had paid everything, she’s trapped with something else, the attorney’s fees. She cannot afford a private lawyer and that’s why she came to us for help. Unfortunately, we disappointed her, the judgment was granted, we couldn't do anything else.

Jane’s case is an example of how our system still cannot provide the justice needed. During my presentation session, I told this story of Jane, and one of the presenters shared a similar experience. He interned at Public Defenders Service in Washington D.C. and once he was told by a prosecutor during lunch break: “You work at the Public Defenders Service? You are representing the bad guys, huh?”

Again, being poor has been stigmatized. Not only the poor are being looked at upon down but the people who are working for them as well. The system no longer wants to function based on equality but rather a socioeconomically hierarchy. The power belongs to the wealth and comes with it are numerous privileges.

Being poor is not a choice. I once wanted to believe that being hardworking would be rewarded but it seems I was wrong. I am privileged. My parents can afford my college tuition, we still have our own attorneys and if I had never taken this internship, I would have never seen the ugly side of the country that I’m living and studying in, I would still be trapped in my own little world.

SHECP 2017 was definitely a life-changing experience for me. Although I’m not sure if I want to go to law school immediately after undergrad or not, everything that I have been through reaffirmed my interest in justice.

Kien LeComment