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Life as a Public Defender

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. -- The holiday pressure is on and for public defenders that means getting all eligible clients out of jail before the New Year. Fighting for the release of people who are only charged with misdemeanors is a daily goal but the holidays make that fight even more pressing.

I realize some people will not be sympathetic to the fact that about 2.2 million Americans will be spending the holiday season behind bars. Justifying it by thinking that if you break the law you should deal with the consequences. I might have agreed with this reasoning a year ago but that was before I met people who are behind bars for economic crimes like driving a car with a suspended license to get to a job, or nonviolent offenses such as trespass at a business or vacant property and obstructing traffic by panhandling at an intersection. I fail to find the justice when the innocent-until-proven-guilty have $25 acting as their sole roadblock to freedom.

Twenty-five dollars was the roadblock a young mother faced in our quest to get her home in time to prepare for Santa's visit to her children. On the day we addressed the financial hardship of the bond with the judge a private attorney was in the courtroom. That attorney "anonymously" donated $25 for my client's bail. It turned out to be unnecessary because the judge resolved the case but it was a wonderful gesture. It was one of many courthouse examples of the holiday spirit being in the air. The past couple of weeks it seems that sentences have been lighter and the more difficult cases were being postponed until after the new year.

After reviewing my files I found 4 new clients who were charged with misdemeanors, but who couldn't afford to pay for their freedom. One broke and hungry client was arrested after he allegedly stole $13 worth of food from the supermarket. The bond he couldn't afford was $100. The man had been in jail for ten days when I was able to get him in front of a judge. With 10 days already served in jail I thought this case would be easy to resolve but it appeared that the prosecutor had yet to catch the holiday spirit. The prosecutor's offer was a sentence of 45 days behind bars. Thanks to the judge, who agreed to a plea of time served, this client won't be spending Christmas in jail.

Not all the clients that I tried to get out of jail for the holidays will be going home. There is one older gentleman who was arrested for trespass, allegedly not leaving a Sears Store when he was asked to, who will remain in jail. He could have resolved his case by accepting 11 days of time served but he says he didn't do anything wrong and he wants to fight the charge. Anticipating his wish for a trial I had filed a motion requesting that he be released on his own recognizance. I had planned on asking the court to take his word for it that he would show up at his next hearing so that way the $100 bond wouldn't keep him incarcerated.

The day we were in front of the judge my client decided that he did not want the motion for release to be heard. His reason -- he doesn't have a home to go to for the holidays, so jail is where he opted to stay.

Justice needs to be served - but with an ample helping of compassion, too.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy and healthy New Year.

The high profile trials of Manuel Noriega, Timothy McVeigh, OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman are among the important legal stories Kim Segal covered as a journalist for over two decades. While working as a producer for CNN, she began attending law school at night, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2005.

At 46, she left her television career for a position as a Public Defender in Broward County, Florida.

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