As a “Law and Order: SVU” devotee and a fan of true crime media generally, I long idolized the quick-witted and well-worded prosecutors and DAs I saw depicted in television. In my youth, I also demonized defense attorneys, wondering how anyone could spend their lives trying to get “criminals” off and preventing “justice” for victims. With age, exposure, and education, however, I see both types of attorneys differently. There’s a lot I could say about racist district attorneys and merciless prosecutors, but that’s a topic for another time, and not as relevant for my current work.
What I’m realizing this summer is how much respect I have for public defenders and other attorneys who use their degree to defend those deemed guilty by our criminal justice system.
While no profession is perfect through and through, I’ve now taken prosecutors off of my mental pedestal and replaced them with those involved in defense. These attorneys use their expensive and hard-earned degree not to incarcerate people, but to fight for anyone and everyone’s right to physical freedom, regardless of actual or perceived guilt. Although not all public defenders are abolitionists, their profession itself fights the idea that locking up and harming another body will somehow erase the harm of which they are accused.
If I am to be a true advocate for prison abolition, this profession is the one for me. Being a public defender, however, seems like an enormous undertaking, and I’ve often wondered if I might find another way to defend the victims of the criminal justice system. Luckily, my work with CJRC answered that question.
Last week, I spoke with the Legal Restoration Counsel from Orange County, Emma Ferriola-Bruckenstein. I looked forward to this Zoom call all week after reading her job description; hearing about her position gave me another idea of how to use my future law degree. As an attorney working in legal restoration, Emma spends most of her time helping clients restore their driver licenses and expunge their criminal records.
Her job is highly specific, and just as impactful. While Emma does not work for the reentry council in Orange, her work logically coincides with theirs. Employment is one of the biggest issues in the reentry field (second only to housing). Finding a living-wage job is never particularly easy in this country, but the search is made ever more challenging when the applicant has a criminal record and no access to transportation. This is where Emma’s work can broaden the prospects of a justice-involved individual, giving them more access to the job market and tools for a sustainable future.
Hearing about Emma’s work and the work of other attorneys in the defense field shows me that I don’t have to have a big title or work for the Innocence Project to make an enormous impact. Emma’s department-of-one, while constantly busy, is also consistently fighting for the freedom of those harmed by the justice system or the DMV or superfluous fines.
Emma’s field of work is precise, and this sharp focus allows her to broaden the possibilities of her clients.