Insight into American justice

Jane Viner ‘05
Legal Rights Center

My experience at the Legal Rights Center was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. The lessons I learned, and the people I met at Legal Rights Center made me realize how wide the world was. If you are willing to open up to others, there are innumerable opportunities to learn about yourself and the world as a whole. One of the best aspects of my job at the Legal Rights Center was that my responsibilities were wide and varying. I was able to meet and interact with a broad variety of unique people. While my experience helped me focus my attention on what field I want to pursue professionally, it really made me appreciate all of the opportunities I have before me. I am so grateful to have been able to intern at the Legal Rights Center because it helped me discover so much about myself – what I want to do with my life but more importantly what kind of a person I want to become.

I wish I could travel back in time to when I was first beginning my internship and tell myself what an incredible experience it was going to be. Though I had spent months arranging for it, I could not have anticipated how much knowledge and experience I would gain from my Legal Rights Center internship. Let me start from the beginning. In the first few months of spring term my freshman year I decided I was not going to spend another summer babysitting and waiting tables. Though they were both good jobs, I had done that and learned plenty about entertaining six-year-olds and serving pasta! I decided to intern. Doing what? Where? Would I get paid? After talking to upperclassmen about their experiences, and asking professors their recommendations, I started looking. I read hundreds of job descriptions, and finally one on Dartmouth Career Services website caught my eye. What I had found was an internship for a non-profit criminal defense law firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Legal Rights Center described itself as a people’s law firm. They were committed to helping people that had nowhere else to turn. Much to the surprise of my friends and family, my internship selection was not health related. I explained to them that although I am on a pre-medical tract, and am considering either a biology or psychology major, I was strongly drawn to this internship. Something about it struck me and I had to do it. Thanks to the generosity of the Dartmouth Partners in Community Services, I was able to.

Before I describe my internship in detail, I would like to thank the Dartmouth Partners in Community Service program for making it possible. I cannot say enough about the DPCS program, or the Tucker Foundation as a whole. The staff at the Tucker Foundation was very knowledgeable and helpful. The DPCS application expectations were reasonable and I feel the selection was fair. DPCS is a wonderful program because they not only provide economic support, but they also provide resources to acclimate you to your internship. The most important resource they provide is a Dartmouth alum mentor. DPCS put me in contact with Kathy Heafy, a Dartmouth ’90 living in Minneapolis. Before my internship began, I was reassured knowing I would have someone in the community to contact if I needed help or had any questions. Once I met Kathy, I was so grateful to have made a great friend. Kathy was wonderful! We had such a fun time swapping Dartmouth stories and I really enjoyed hearing about her life experiences. She shared her college scrapbooks with me, and she told me about her Language Study Abroad experience in France – the same program I am going on this winter. Kathy is a role model to me because she fulfilled her dreams of having a successful career, raising a happy family, and staying close to her loved ones. She spent a lot of time listening to my ambitions and helping me sort out my goals. I appreciate her friendship and know I will always stay in touch with her. One of the best parts of the Dartmouth Partners in Community Service program is the mentor connection. DPCS enabled me to have an incredible learning experience both in meeting Kathy and in fulfilling my internship at the Legal Rights Center.

Legal Rights Center (LRC) is not a typical law firm. It is a non-profit law office, which is devoted to providing economically disadvantaged people and people of color with legal services in matters related to the criminal and juvenile justice system. In additions, the LRC helps clients deal with the risk factors (unemployment, chemical dependency, etc.) that preceded their involvement with the law. The LRC is involved in civil rights advocacy and in the field of Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice programs provide alternative justice solutions to chargeable criminal offenses. These alternative solutions are more constructive approach to offender rehabilitation and crime reduction.

Our clients were not buying our services nor were they assigned to us because they had no other option. The LRC operates under the principle that economically disadvantaged citizens should have the opportunity to have the same quality legal representation that a person with financial means has. The LRC believes the legal system should provide the poor with a mechanism that understands their issues, respects them as people, and works with them to address the risk factors causing their involvement with the law. The LRC has a unique process of representing clients and I was fortunate enough to be involved in all aspects of the process.

During my first week at the LRC, I learned the steps of the LRC’s unique process. First of all, the LRC employs community workers who possess great knowledge of the legal system in addition to possessing phenomenal people skills. I was fortunate to work with the community workers as they interviewed potential clients. This initial step of the process takes place during intake hours, two weekday mornings a week. At this time, potential clients come into the office, meet with a community worker, and explain their legal need. Most people had a notice to appear in court and needed an attorney, but some people had other legal questions and did not know where else to go for answers. The community workers were all extremely compassionate, patient, and sensitive. They wrote down the details of clients’ cases and then presented the cases at the weekly staff meeting. During this meeting, the community workers presented the cases and we as a staff decided which cases to represent. Our decision to represent a client was based on the client’s need, their past record, whether the case conflicted with principles of the firm, and if the attorneys could handle the case load. We rarely turned down cases. The attorneys always found a way to squeeze in more clients in their already booked schedules. After we decided to accept a case, the community worker or I would telephone the client to let them know. Then, we would enter the client’s name and information into the client database. After that, we would do any necessary investigation or research.

I researched cases in the Criminal Jury Guidelines, and specific internet sites. Often I sought to find out exactly what the details of the statute were so we could build a good defense. I loved doing really close readings and determining if there are any inconsistency between the charge and what our client actually did. One of the community workers taught me to us the Westlaw software to research cases. This database is full of information and once I learned to use it, I could really help the attorneys prepare their cases. Using this software, I researched past court cases that were relevant to cases we were working on at the time. Those previous court decisions and appeals further explained the cryptic diction of the Minnesota Statutes. Each statute had to be read very carefully, as did the appeal opinions because the language was often so vague; I referenced several sources before I really understood what they meant.

Sometimes it felt like what I was doing was looking for ways to be deceptive. For example, if a client clearly was doing something wrong, but the police officer made a procedural mistake, our client is protected and released of the charge because the police officer’s evidence is “fruit of a poisonous tree.” That mentality did not seem moral to me, but I recognized that the legal system was designed to determine whether someone broke the law, not if someone did something “wrong,” because citizens only have to adhere to the opinion of the laws that were created by and for them. I quit trying to decide if what something someone did was wrong, and focused on whether they had infringed upon what the state or Constitution said.
I developed a sense of pride in our Constitution and in the law because I saw that it was designed to protect citizens’ rights and freedoms. I was stunned to see first hand how frequently people – particularly minorities, economically disadvantaged, and new arrivals – are discriminated against. Many clients had done nothing wrong, were mistreated by police officers, sited with a charge, but could do nothing about it because their stories were irrelevant next to the police report. I had never realized how often these injustices occur, but do not make the news. Most policemen generally do a good job, but I was sickened by some stories of police harassing citizens and preying on their vulnerabilities.

In addition to completing the background work on cases, I also went to the courthouse with attorneys for court appearances. It felt great to be part of the team working to help our client. The most interesting research I did was for cases that I had been following since intake. I was eager to research these cases because I had been involved with the case and the client from the beginning. The client knew me and recognized me at court. I appreciated merely being recognized, but it was really satisfying when a look of relief and gratitude would cross a client’s face after seeing me because they knew I was there to help. The attorneys knew what cases I was working on and would consult me about what I had learned from my research, and what opinions I had about the case. I felt proud that the attorneys had faith in my abilities, and respected my opinions. All of the cases I followed and researched settled before or on their scheduled trial dates. Though it would have been a unique learning experience to be a part of a case that went through a jury trial, I was satisfied that the cases I followed received favorable settlement agreements.

I gained valuable knowledge about the United States legal system from my experiences in court. I learned how much goes on outside of the courtroom. I did not realize how closely the county prosecutor and defense attorney worked. Negotiations between the prosecution and defense occur out of the courtroom in small conference rooms. The subsequent deals depend heavily on individuals’ personalities and interactions. Also, the offender’s sentence can be enormously affected by the judge. I was reassured that the judge and prosecution sometimes looked past the offense and considered the offender as a person. They often reviewed the offender’s past and present situations, and considered the result of their alleged offense. This type of empathy was encouraging because it showed that the state was seeking to help and/or rehabilitate the offender rather than simply lock them up. Of course, the levels of empathy varied between prosecutors and judges.

While this internship gave me a greater appreciation for this country’s concept of justice, I seriously doubt its effectiveness. Most of the time the legal system functions to hurt those who most need their help. In the case of new arrivals, the legal system punishes them for breaking laws they didn’t know about. In a Public Opinion of the Courts Study performed by the state of Minnesota from 1999-2000, nearly half of the minority respondents said they knew nothing about the court system. The system is completely insensitive to cultural traditions and customs that are not traditional in Western culture and are therefore wrong. Often I felt ambivalent about cases where a cultural custom broke the law in this country. On one hand, I feel the US justice system caters to a specific group with a certain set of values while ignoring other customs and being intolerant to their traditional practices. On the other hand, I feel that many new arrivals chose to move from their native lands to the US and therefore must obey the laws here. Statutes are drafted by the state legislature, which is comprised of officials elected by and for the people.

The LRC was active in community outreach programs to educate citizens about their legal rights. For one, community workers hold office hours each week at several non-profit, culturally specific agencies, namely Chicano y Latinos Unidos En Servicio, the Lao Community Assistance Program, the American Indian OIC, and The City, Inc. LRC community workers offer legal consultation and educational services to these community organizations. While I was working for the LRC, we held a one-day workshop at a community center to educate members of the Hmong community about their legal rights. By reaching out to new arrival members of the community, we were educating them so they would be less likely to enter or return to the criminal system.

During the latter half of my internship, I became intensely involved with the LRC’s Restorative Justice program. My involvement began slowly early on and gradually grew. Initially, I had asked our executive administrator, Gordon Stewart, to explain how the Legal Rights Center was able to operate as a non-profit agency. Gordon talked to me about the process of researching grants, requesting applications, and writing grant proposals. I had a little experience with researching and writing grant applications, but I wanted to learn more. Gordon happily gave me a volume of philanthropic agencies in Minnesota and asked me to research and summarize promising grants for our Restorative Justice program.

In order to efficiently research appropriate grants, I needed to know more about the program. I read information about alternative justice solutions on the Minnesota State Courts website, watched informational videos about the program, and talked with the LRC’s Restorative Justice coordinator, Linda Schneider.

I found that the Restorative Justice program offers alternative justice solutions that are more effective and healthier than the punishments given by the legal system. The legal system’s antagonistic approach to justice is often counterproductive. Sentences do not always address the problem at hand. Instead of making offenders accountable for their crimes, then seeking to rehabilitate them, the justice system makes the offender “pay” by alienating them from society. Where the justice system falls short is in addressing the root of the problem and seeking to rehabilitate offenders. If the justice system adopted a more fostering role and sought to help offenders not see themselves as criminals but as accountable members of society, the statistics of repeat offenders would plummet.

The Restorative Justice Program advocates a more empowering approach to resolving crimes by respecting the capacity of families and neighbors to resolve conflicts. Well-trained mediators can help families and communities use creative problem-solving to create mutually agreeable plans to resolve conflicts. This approach is particularly beneficial in helping troubled youth overcome their problems and builds their sense of accountability. The Restorative Justice Program focuses on reducing juvenile crime by hold youth accountable for their crimes, but keeping them out of the legal system. The program also promotes the strengthening of families by avoiding the adversarial attitude of the legal system that works to pull families apart, and instead focuses on helping families resolve their conflicts themselves.

During the last two weeks of my internship, I worked with the Restorative Justice campaign. This committee was working on arranging Minnesota State Legislature candidate forums in twelve counties in Minnesota. The forums would be an opportunity for constituents to meet with candidates to discuss crime prevention, community safety, and alternative justice solutions. The work I did for the campaign involved finding contact information for all of the candidates running for state legislature in the twelve counties, contact them, explain a little about the Restorative Justice campaign, find out their availability in the month of October, draft a schedule for the candidate forums, and present what I had found to the committee. I spent a long time working on this project, but felt extremely fulfilled by it. Not only did I feel like I was working on a good cause, but the committee was so appreciative and thankful for the work I had done for them.
My summer internship at the Legal Rights Center was an invaluable experience. Although it was in an area that did not directly pertain to my major or my intended career field, I learned so much about the world and about myself. I learned how generous and selfless people could be from the staff at the LRC who extremely worked hard and were rarely thanked for their time, energy, and expertise. Those incredible people could have had very different lives, but they chose to devote themselves to helping others. I learned how perseverant and hard working some people were from meeting our clients who seemed to have been dealt terrible circumstances, but they kept an optimistic attitude and kept on working.

Ultimately, my experience instilled in me a great sense of gratitude to have so many opportunities, but also it compelled me to find a way to use my talents and opportunities to my fullest ability to benefit others. My experience working at the Legal Rights Center did not convince me that I wanted to become an attorney; rather it made me surer of my choice to become a physician. What it did teach me was to see the potential in everyone I meet and look for the lesson in every situation, because it is there. A person who shuts people or experiences out because they are unfamiliar and seemingly invaluable will miss so much of life. Absolutely everyone has something to give in some way or another. My experience at the LRC made me eager to give all I can and to see the best in everyone.