MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. So throughout 2014, we're talking about what poverty looks like in American now. We're asking things like who is most likely to be poor today, and what affect does poverty have on people's lives? And we're hearing different ideas about solutions.
Today, we focus on the criminal justice system. And most people seem to know by now that even being charged with a crime or detained for an alleged crime can have serious economic consequences. Arrests can lead to missed work, loss of a job and even homelessness, long before a case even goes to trial.
And even though poor defendants are assigned public defenders at no cost, that's not always enough for them to navigate the criminal justice system effectively. A legal organization in New York called the Bronx Defenders hopes to change that. Executive director Robin Steinberg is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
ROBIN STEINBERG: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So you only assist low-income Bronx residents. Why the Bronx, if I may ask?
STEINBERG: It's the poorest borough in New York City and the most under-resourced and underserved in the city. So we thought that would be the most appropriate place to put our office.
MARTIN: And what are some of the issues that caused you to kind of think through this way of working with clients? I mean, for example, I think most people have seen by now - there have been certainly a lot of movies about it, certainly a lot of books written about this whole question of your right to a defense even if you don't have the money to pay for a lawyer. So what is it that you do differently?
STEINBERG: What we realized when we got to the Bronx in 1997 and we began to watch the impact that the criminal justice system was having on our clients in the Bronx, we realized that lots of other areas of people's lives were being impacted beyond the criminal case.
So what we saw was clients who were being evicted because they'd been arrested, children being removed from their home because they had been in the criminal justice system, people risking deportation, losing their benefits, losing their jobs.
And we began to sort of understand the collateral impact of criminal justice involvement and created a model to respond to that knowledge.
MARTIN: So one of the people who found themselves in need of your services is Anthony. He's a commercial exhaust cleaner in New York. And at his request, we're not using his last name. But he's with us now to tell us a little bit about how your organization helped him. So, Anthony, welcome to you. Thank you for coming.
ANTHONY: Thank you.
MARTIN: So I understand that you had a verbal altercation...
MARTIN: Right, with the mother of your children. You said there was some pushing involved. You were arrested. And after two days in jail, you faced three different cases, right? What were they?
ANTHONY: They were a criminal case, a family court case and my immigration case.
MARTIN: So what happened? I mean, when all this happened, had you ever had any contact with the criminal justice system before?
ANTHONY: No. No, this was my first time.
MARTIN: Were you scared?
MARTIN: What was going through your mind when you were arrested and you realized you were going to face three charges? I mean, I guess the first thing I'm curious about...
ANTHONY: I don't deserve this.
MARTIN: OK. Well...
ANTHONY: You know, 33 and first time going through the system and stuff like that. Like, I'd never been arrested when I was younger. So to be a grown man and having to deal with cases and stuff like that is stressful, you know.
MARTIN: Were you worried you were going to lose your job?
MARTIN: Because you felt that the time out of work...
ANTHONY: Yeah, the time out of work, and the whole situation with the immigration also affects it. And, you know, not showing up for at least a day or two days - they usually get rid of guys who don't show up. It's not a job where you need any kind of special background. So a guy off the street could actually walk in and put in an application so...
MARTIN: How was Bronx Defenders able to help you?
ANTHONY: They saved me from going to jail, from doing any time. I'm doing programs now. I didn't think I would be offered a program. I thought I actually would've been locked up right now, you know, serving my time and stuff like that or even deported.
MARTIN: You were offered a program. What does that mean? Like, some sort of a non-prison alternative - what - anger management or some kind of...
ANTHONY: Yeah, anger management...
MARTIN: ...To help you deal with your situation with your...
MARTIN: ...Other half.
ANTHONY: My kids' mother. Yeah.
MARTIN: So, Robin, tell us a little bit more about how you addressed Anthony's situation.
STEINBERG: His experience in the criminal justice system is unfortunately fairly typical. Somebody can be arrested for a misdemeanor, which is a rather minor crime in New York, and come into the system for the first time, like he did at 33, and all of a sudden realize that not only are they facing the possibility of going to jail and a criminal conviction, but they're facing the possibility of being deported to a country that they haven't lived in since they were children, losing their kids to the family court system and in his case, losing a job that he cared about very deeply.
But our advocates who work together on interdisciplinary teams were able to sit down with him and really problem solve where all the areas were that might be affected by this one arrest and how we could protect him from some of the devastating consequences of that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the role the criminal justice system can play in perpetuating poverty in this country. And our guests are Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders. That's a legal organization that helps low-income defendants not just with their specific cases, but with all that goes with being in the criminal justice system, and Anthony, a client of the organization
So one other thing you were telling us, Robin, is that sometimes people plead guilty hoping that it'll get them through the system faster even if they aren't guilty. Is that true?
STEINBERG: It's absolutely the case. People plead guilty because they can't come back to court over and over again. People sometimes plead guilty because they can't afford to post the bail that's been set by a judge, and so they plead guilty so they can go home. They plead guilty because they're scared. They plead guilty because they're humiliated and demoralized and don't want to keep coming back.
And they just want to get it over with, which is an understanding human emotion, right? It's understandable that somebody would want to just put something behind them. But unless the advocates are working together in a holistic way and talking to clients and empowering them with the information for them to understand all the ways in which their lives and their family's lives will be impacted, people can make a terrible mistake by pleading guilty even to a minor misdemeanor.
MARTIN: Tell me more about that, though, because I think a lot of middle-class people will have had the experience of saying - admitting to a parking ticket or a traffic ticket that they think they don't deserve just to get it over with.
STEINBERG: Well, it's a big deal because a criminal conviction even for a minor offense can actually stigmatize you for the rest of your life. And sometimes when you're facing the, you know, the decision about do I plead guilty and go home or do I stay in the system, that's hard to think about what the impacts are down the road.
Traditional public defender models really focus exclusively on the criminal cases, but we need to really define what we do much more broadly so that we can actually also empower clients with the information about all those other areas that are impacted.
MARTIN: Anthony, do you mind if I ask you a tough question? Some people are going to be listening to our conversation, and they're going to be saying that the people who are most often affected by inappropriate behavior are other people who are poor.
And so they're going to be wondering, like, why it is in society's best interest for somebody like you to not be in jail. I mean, if you did - now I'm asking what happened 'cause I wasn't there, and the matter has been addressed.
But if there was some situation between you and your children's mother that - well, you did do something wrong, some people might feel, well, you know, maybe you should be locked up. And I just wanted to ask you if you would say why you feel it's in society's best interest that you do something else other than being locked up.
ANTHONY: I don't think a person should face actual jail time for an argument. Like, they don't really do any investigation and stuff like that to say, oh, this person is lying or something like that 'cause that's how the case finally ended up.
Like, they realized in family court that it was all just words, you know, just anger at the moment. So she said what she wanted to say, and they took down the report, you know...
MARTIN: So the idea was, though, that you're now in some sort of diversion program where if you successfully complete it, then your record will be clean. Is that - is that it?
ANTHONY: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Because you're a first offender and because it was not considered a serious, like...
ANTHONY: Well, in the family court, that's the way it stands. As long as I finish the program, then I have a clear record for family court. What the...
MARTIN: And the program does what for you? Teaches you some better ways to address your disputes...
ANTHONY: Better ways to - exactly, to handle the...
MARTIN: ...And communication.
ANTHONY: ...Communication and stuff like that. I really learned a lot within listening to the programs and see where a lot of it probably started out with the argument and to take responsibility more for the relationship, you understand. Instead of using the, you phrase, you just use the I languages. You know, I believe that we need to talk or something like that instead of you, you, you 'cause that's what triggers most arguments at home, you know, between men and women.
MARTIN: Yeah. I see. Robin, do you want to take that question as well? I mean, people would say, well, OK, so, you know, you're weighing in on behalf of people who are of low income and who are accused of crimes. But other people would say that the people who are generally the targets are also other low-income people. So why is it to society's benefit that you're weighing in so heavily on this side?
STEINBERG: Well, I think what Anthony touched on is an interesting point. The truth is is that while middle-class and upper-class communities might get parking tickets, those communities are not the communities that are being targeted by the police.
Those aren't the communities that the criminal justice system polices. What's conduct in one community, that same conduct is not deemed criminal in another community.
ANTHONY: That's true.
STEINBERG: And in large measure, that is about class and that's about race. And so people get into arguments, even heated arguments, all the time in middle and upper-class communities across New York City, but you don't see them being hauled into the criminal justice system.
MARTIN: Yeah, but maybe their spouses aren't calling the police.
STEINBERG: It raises an interesting question about if you're living in a disenfranchised community or a community that's been historically suffering from all the symptoms of poverty, there aren't a lot of options for reaching out for help. So people that are in low-income communities will often rely on administrative systems like the police department to get help because they don't have other resources available to them.
But that doesn't mean that the conduct is only going on in those communities, rather those are the communities been targeted by the police. And that creates an inequality in and of itself that really needs to be addressed. You know, defending somebody like Anthony and empowering him to make choices about looking at the criminal case, understanding the deportation consequences, looking at what the impact is it might have on his family or his job, and then allowing him to make the decisions about what's in his best interest and what, frankly, is in his family's best interest and his community's best interest by having all that information.
Look, at the end of the day, everybody's better off if Anthony gets the services that he needs. He's able to stay in this country with his children and his family. He's able to support them by going to a job, right. He's able to get the help with some of the issues that he wanted help with in terms of learning better communication styles in his intimate relationships. That's better not just for him, that's better for society. It's better for his family. It's better for his community. It's better for all of us.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Anthony, do you have a final thought?
ANTHONY: The lawyers there at Bronx Defenders, they're something different. Like, I didn't think public defenders would fight for you the way they did, you know. I always thought that you need a paid lawyer for when you get into serious trouble like I did.
And, you know, being that they just came and helped out and they didn't even know me, so they actually sat down and we conversated, became really - really a good thing for me.
MARTIN: Anthony is a commercial exhaust cleaner in New York. He's a client of the Bronx Defenders. Robin Steinberg is the executive director of the Bronx Defenders. And they were both kind enough to join us in our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.
ANTHONY: Thank you.
STEINBERG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.