Victories in Court Didn’t Mean We Won

When I started this internship in May, I wanted to explore public defense and everything it had to offer. The people that made my internship much more than just a summer gig were a team of incredibly passionate lawyers, social workers, intake specialists, and investigators. They came in every morning ready to tackle the storm ahead, a storm that was always there. I got front row seats to murder trials and then backstage passes to lawyers decompressing in the break room. While I enjoyed learning about all the incredible work the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office does, it did help me realize I was not interested in this field.

The majority of our clients live below the poverty line, suffer from mental illnesses, and are repeat offenders. Solving their current legal issue is a band-aid to a much larger wound that is not only affecting the city of Providence but cities everywhere. For this reason, my career goals are still centered around the legal field but at a much “higher level”. While that “higher level” remains undefined, I want to attend law school after graduating from Boston College. All I know at the moment is that I want to be able to address this issues that our clients struggle with. Helping them win a court case never meant the bigger issue was solved,  and that bothered me all summer.

Even though my goals and interests shifted in the middle of my internship, I still gained an invaluable amount of knowledge while working. During my third or fourth week there, I started to realize a lot of our clients listed schizophrenia as a disability. I was perplexed because I was previously led to believe that schizophrenia was a very noticeable and hindering mental disorder. I engaged in a discussion with one of our social workers about it that resulted in an office-wide lecture about the different levels of schizophrenia, the history of diagnosing it, and how/why some clients might be wrongly diagnosed yet given treatment for it. Learning about this disorder did not necessarily change how we treated our clients but helped us understand cases better.

Although I am no longer interested in public defense, this summer was incredible, and I have the Boston College Career Center to thank for it. Without the support of the Career Center, I would not have been able to accept this internship which taught me an incredible amount about the justice system in Rhode Island and my desire for my future.

Written by Raf Torres, BC Class of 2018

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Before a Trial: Intake Unit

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Every morning at the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office, a group of interns sit around and discuss “the list”. The list is a collection of names, dates, and charges compiled by every police department in Rhode Island earlier that morning. Our job is to interview these men and women to figure out if their current financial situation qualifies them for our legal support.

Part of our unofficial job description requires the interns to understand the community we are serving. My Boston College education has played a tremendous role in enabling me to do so this summer. Professor Seraphim, through “Asia in the World II”, taught me that history is often written by the victor thus erasing entire timelines and groups of people. To truly understand a time period or a situation, we must examine all sides and remove any bias we might have. The bias that may exist when we talk to potential clients or examine certain cases has been institutionalized through racism and classism. Professor Concepcion’s “Race, Law, and Resistance” taught me how these components have become systemic throughout American society thus hindering the mobility of groups of people while simultaneously  endangering communities with identifiers such as low-income or Black/Latino. My Boston College education has provided me with the unique skill of being able to assess our clients’ situations from a holistic viewpoint, truly understanding everything that could potentially affect a client.

Beyond what I have taken away from classes, I have had the opportunity to help raise awareness on certain issues through student organizations. Most recently, I participated in a collaborative effort between the Organization of Latin American Affairs and Asian Caucus in which we used photographs of students standing side by side who identify with the immigrant experience whether directly or indirectly through their families. The campaign received overwhelming support and I soon came to realize that students were simply unaware of their classmates’ stories and backgrounds. Similarly, a lot of our clients have never been given the opportunity to share their story. I have learned that every small detail they choose to share with us about their background or the case eventually plays a much larger role throughout our time defending the individual. For example, a short story about previous interactions with police ends up becoming crucial knowledge about the client’s mental history that we would not have noted otherwise.

My current position is the first opportunity for the Public Defender’s Office to gain the maximum amount of knowledge about our clients before assigning a lawyer to their case. For this reason, I am incredibly fortunate to have had Boston College provide the necessary education and experiences to do my job well.

Written by Rafael Torres, BC Class of 2018