Summer Job Diaries: Nicole Duncan Learns the Art of Indigent Defense
Nicole Duncan ’16, a rising second-year day student, is working this summer as a Juvenile Public Defense Intern for the Caddo Parish Juvenile Public Defenders in Shreveport, La. She attained the job through Gideon’s Promise, a program featured in the HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army.
Q: How did you land the job?
A: I interviewed with Gideon's Promise at OCI (On-Campus Interviews), and they selected where in the South they wanted to place me for the summer. Orientation was in Atlanta. Gideon's Promise is an organization that partners with public defenders to build a community of committed and passionate advocates to drive indigent defense reform across the South. They work to help people realize the meaningful right to counsel nationwide.
Q: What is the most interesting part of your job?
A: The most interesting part of my job is going through the various courts throughout the week. Everything is held in one court building, but there are three court rooms. Each judge will have a docket of either delinquency court, drug court, truancy court (kids missing school), IDD court, or “Families in Need of Services and Children in Need of Care.” Everyday there is literally something different, and being able to go through the process from arraignment to trial, sitting with the clients and their families, and even participating in bench conferences blows my mind.
I realized head-on that my client is a not a "client," but an actual human being--mom, dad, daughter, sister, brother, son -- with their own story, who goes to work and school, has to figure out their schedule, carpools to court or takes the bus. When I see the attorneys I shadow in action, I quickly realize just how important public defense really is, because otherwise it would be the giant system versus one child or one family.
Q: What has been your most challenging assignment thus far?
A: My most challenging assignment is more "mental" than anything else. It's an everyday thing where I mentally prepare myself for court. I prepare myself to see cases where many times the children get taken away from their homes that very same day. Or you want the absolute best for a client you've come to be very close to, but all of the evidence is stacked against them, and you know you will lose this one. Other times, you find out that the reason a kid has missed about 90 days of school was due to an extremely tough family situation that you neverhad to go through at the age of 10. You also see 11-year-olds in orange jumpsuits and chains and constantly talk to kids who have no idea that what they did will change their entire lives. These are my most challenging assignments, and they happen every single day.
Q: What new legal skill(s) have you acquired during your time there?
A: I've learned the legal skills of not only negotiating, but also battling for clients in so many other ways. There's not a lot of yelling across the courtroom like on TV, and the defenders are pitbulls who battle for their clients and get them incredible deals. I saw a five-year sentence possibility for a child get negotiated down to 90 days probation. It was incredible. Trial is also an advocacy tool, but it's not the only thing they use. There are numerous programs put in place for the kids to get mentors and counseling. There are programs for the kids to get their GEDs and really turn their lives around. Everyone is invested here! There was even one time where an attorney went completely out of her way to get a 9-year-old a bike so he could enjoy his summer like the other kids.
Additionally, there's the legal skill of actually caring about your client. They know the kids and their families, the grandparents, the schools they go to and what they do for fun! It's truly inspiring because everyone from the probation officers to the attorneys and judges really want rehabilitation for these kids instead of incarceration, so they do everything they can to make that available.
Q: What chances have you had to display your legal knowledge?
A: One of the judges asked me what we should do about a client who was about to turn 17, but recently was brought into court off of a charge from a year ago. In Caddo, 17 is considered an adult, so he was no longer going to be a part of the juvenile system. The judge asked me in a conference if I would drop the small charge so he could leave or have this hang over his head, and my "legal skill" was simply grace. This kid had gone through literally everything you could imagine. It's the skill of putting yourself in this kid's shoes...that's it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but criminalizing someone even more, especially a child, never did anything good for anyone.