Cops are standing naked, breaking into song…
Statesmen and salesmen bend to kiss the ground,
Lawyers and losers hold hands and hang around.”
— Accordingly, by Chris Whitley
For me, one of the most difficult parts of being an attorney is the painful experience of getting to know my client as a fellow human, and seeing he or she viewed as lesser in all phases of the criminal justice system. In the courtroom and in the jail, everything—from the way people are dressed, to where we are allowed to stand, to who is allowed to speak to whom—serves to create barriers between the defendant’s humanity and all the rest. Though I am in a suit and my client in a jumpsuit or in street clothes, I know we are essentially no different.
This simple realization can have a devastating impact when working in system where the people whose liberty is at stake often bear the brunt of the system’s deficiencies and injustices. At the start of my legal career I would feel a visceral shock when I thought about how we allow labels like defendant, judge, corrections officer, criminal, attorney, client to define us more than our essential, true shared selves. Over time, I learned this outrage I felt worked to undermine my effectiveness as an advocate. I came to realize it was actually my resistance and squeamishness to accepting the external reality of injustice ingrained everywhere—in the way we think, walk, talk, purchase, and move through our days. The fact of injustice is present, and now, I try to simply wake each day and work to create something different.
My work at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center has helped follow this mission. I am currently working with community colleges across the state to help students with criminal records address legal barriers while they are in school so they can effectively find work in their chosen fields after graduation. Our educational systems have never in any systematic, intentional way set up methods for helping students overcome criminal record barriers. Too often, from youth to adult, people with contact with the justice system are discouraged from engaging with educational institutions in a meaningful way. Community colleges have historically been a place where people with criminal records can get a 2nd, 3rd or 4th chance at a meaningful career and way to contribute to their families and community. OJPC’s work with Ohio’s community colleges is aimed at helping students remove legal barriers that could otherwise present an insurmountable obstacle to this great opportunity.
I believe we have a fundamentally broken way of seeing people with criminal records, their aspirations and their duty to prove themselves as worthy. Two people come to mind. The first is a quiet 60 year old man who has a long criminal record from over 20 years ago tied to a prolonged and trying period of drug addiction. When I hear his story it is clear that those hellish years he spent imprisoned physically and spiritually by drug addiction constitute the furnace where the strength of character he carries today was forged. He, however, has not worked since 2010 because he has been labeled legally and socially as a “felon.” Whether by state law or the implicit biases held by employers and insurers, he bears a mark interpreted to mean he is untrustworthy and tainted. In a very real way, he is defined narrowly as “criminal.”
The other is a young man who is in the process of change. He just got off of probation, and his choice to go to community college represents the realization that the way he knew how to live his life was not fulfilling. He has connected to people at Cincinnati State that care about him and are helping him succeed. He is learning, however, that his criminal record is going to make it impossible to work in his chosen field even if he has stellar grades and glowing recommendations from people within the school. When he comes into our legal clinic, we see despair is beginning to creep in on the edges of his hopefulness about his future.
My work with people with criminal records gives me an opportunity to reflect on who are the people today who we see through the lens of stigma. I often hear people talk about people with criminal pasts redeeming themselves and deserving a second chance when they have proven they have done so. From my work, I often see the fallacy in this because the people I meet have always been redeemed.
We must confront within ourselves the moments of inaction or complacency or apathy, and the thinking behind them, that allow us to define each other by terms too simple for what we truly are. Who are the people who we define by one fact about their lives? Who are the people we see as deficient? Who are the people who we are ok to see struggle and fail? The question is not whether someone is worthy of each other’s love and compassion. We are all worthy. The question is how we, as individuals and systems, acknowledge that truth in the here and now.
Rob Wall is a staff attorney at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center where his legal work expands the freedom of people with criminal records to contribute to their communities. OJPC creates fair, intelligent, and redemptive criminal justice systems through zealous client-centered advocacy, innovative policy reform, and cross-sector community education. Learn more and support OJPC at www.ohiojpc.org.