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Equal Justice Foundation Report - Azadeh Golshan
DeKalb County Office of the Public Defender
I spent my summer as an intern with the Juvenile Division of the DeKalb County Office of the Public Defender. It was an educational and very moving experience. As a rising second year student, I spent most of my time interviewing children and their parents, as well as reviewing case files and highlighting potential issues for the attorneys. I also did a number of follow-up calls with parents as the case progressed, inquiring about the status of the child’s behavior since the last court hearing. More than anything, these projects confirmed my gut instinct that working in juvenile justice and public defense is exactly what I want to do in my future career.
Juvenile court is in its substance a different place than adult criminal court. My favorite characteristic of juvenile court is that its primary focus is not on punishment but rather on helping kids straighten out their lives. In that sense, everyone in the courtroom this summer – judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors – was supposed to be focused on what could be done to get each kid back on track in their home, school, and community. This goal often meant placing kids in programs (school/GED, substance abuse, job skills, etc.) rather than simply locking them up, because long-term lock ups were the very last resort. That is not to say that every program worked for every child, or that there were not frustrating cases, but each day had at least one moment when I could see the system working well.
I am a true believer in the rehabilitation philosophy of juvenile court, and that helped make my summer in the public defender’s office very fulfilling. Ultimately, I loved talking with the kids and teenagers, and I was always ready to advocate for them. Perhaps my most satisfying summer experience was a case where I worked with an attorney to contact witnesses for what seemed to be a very frivolous charge. After talking with the witnesses, I was able to sit in on a negotiating session in which I helped the attorney convince the prosecutor to drop the charges against our client. That experience was not only personally satisfying, but also gave me insight into the importance of the role of an attorney – that negotiation may have been routine for our office, but kept a child from having to needlessly go through the juvenile justice system.
Of course, I also had frustrating experiences over the summer. Working with kids in the juvenile court, it was difficult to ignore the fact that a number of children and teenagers were being prosecuted for offenses that would not send their middle-class, white peers to a courtroom. A lot of juvenile cases came from county schools, and it is my opinion that most of those cases should never have made it to court. But because the county school system is overwhelmed, a good many low-income, largely African American youth are arrested for school fights and other common teenage disruptions. While the programs of the juvenile court are intended to keep youthful offenders out of the adult criminal system, I also suspect that being adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent makes it more likely that a child will have future encounters with the criminal justice system. In that sense, the court system seemed fundamentally unfair to me – it appeared that for some kids, their only crime was to exhibit typical teenage behavior in an under-resourced school.
Overall, my time as an intern at the juvenile public defender office was rich, educational, and fulfilling. I am grateful that the EJF grant allowed me to pursue this opportunity, and I would recommend the experience to any other law student.