Julia Snyder and Nic Braswell are public defenders working with the Richmond office of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, a state agency tasked with representing individuals accused of misdemeanors and felonies. Their clients include men and women who are homeless, children from a range of desperate situations, and individuals with mental illness.
[Editor's note: Since participating in this interview, Nic Braswell moved to the private criminal defense firm Price Benowitz LLP.]
Richmond Justice: How did each of you get into the work that you do?
Nic: I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was a kid. My parents have an old poster from my childhood where I had written out my goals: I was going to be a professional football player, or a lawyer. In law school, I was looking for internships after my first year, and I wanted to be a Commonwealth's Attorney.
Julia: I didn’t know that!
Nic: It’s shocking to everyone who knows me when they find out.
Julia: It would shock no one more than the Commonwealth's Attorneys.
Nic: As a first-year law student, I had a very simplistic understanding of the criminal justice system. For me, everything was black and white. Either you did something, or you didn’t. You were guilty, or you were innocent. I was learning to be a Commonwealth's Attorney, but my main impression of that work came from television. I attended an event at the end of my first year in law school and talked to Dave Johnson and Susan Hansen of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. Dave convinced Susan to take on this little one-L for the summer. I completed an internship here, spending most of my time writing reports and observing hearings and trials. With my modest training at that point, there was only so much that I could do. Yet I quickly saw my original view of the criminal justice system fall apart. Once the summer was over, I knew that I could never be a prosecutor—public defense was what I wanted and needed to do. Helping the less fortunate was what I needed to do. And today, I find that the people we help really are those who need it the most.
Julia: Our clients represent a population I would have no exposure to if I had not landed in indigent defense. My father is a criminal defense attorney, though he was a prosecutor for ten years before he got tired of sending people to jail for nonviolent drug offenses—and quit. That’s the background that I come from. Most of our clients are living on the margin. They are always so close to disaster. I’ll go to see a client, and he will tell me, “I’ve got to get out tomorrow, because my rent is due—and it took me forever to get this apartment. I don’t want to lose this apartment—I can’t lose my apartment.” If I were in a situation like that, I’d call a friend, call my parents—have someone help me out. But our clients don’t know anyone who can do that. They don’t know anyone who could cover their own rent and someone else’s. And even if a client is incarcerated for just a day or two, that can be extremely disruptive. Then, once our clients are released, it can be next to impossible to return to the place from which they were arrested and start over.
Richmond Justice: Why is that so?
Julia: If you’re homeless, or even just very poor, it’s hard to get through the day without committing a misdemeanor. Being in a park after dark is illegal. Trespassing on posted property, trespassing on a railroad, littering, driving without a license: each of these things is a Class 1 misdemeanor. Some of these things you might expect to be illegal and deserving of jail time. But you might guess that some of these and many other violations would incur only a small a fine. But no—you could wind up in jail for 30 days, 6 months, 12 months. In Virginia, you can do 12 months on a littering charge. And it's easy to incur a littering charge if you're living on the street.
Nic: Jail time should be a punishment. But, for many people, jail is the result of the state being unable to think of anything better to do with them. These people do not represent a constituency—they’re not voting. They’re eating out of the trash, and the state wishes that they would just go away. The logic is, "Well, it’s Thursday. If we put this person in jail on Thursday, they won’t see a judge until Monday. That’s four or five days when the police do not have to worry about them." No one is thinking about these people, so it's easy for the state to make them disappear. And I get it—they can be bothersome. Sometimes, when they talk to me, they’re screaming and yelling—they’re bothering me! But I would rather be bothered than know that this person would otherwise be in jail.
And keep in mind that I'm not talking about prison: I'm talking about time spent in the local jail. Time spent in increments of one and two days. But because our clients generally live in intractable situations, those ones and twos add up to years and years.
Richmond Justice: I’m struck that the two of you are paid by the state. I hear you describing an antagonistic relationship with the Commonwealth's Attorneys, and that you would never work in that capacity. But you’re part of the state government: You’re a representative of the state even as you’re in conflict with the state. What is that like?
Julia: We’re a public service that serves a portion of the public that most of the public prefers not be served. Most if not all of the Commonwealth's Attorneys are trying to do the right thing. But their definitions of “the right thing” and my definitions of “the right thing” are often not within shouting distance. I have gone through life getting much more than I deserve. I have been incredibly lucky. I have received lots of undeserved benefits. And I think we would all be in trouble if we got exactly what we deserve. There’s that quote from Hamlet along the lines of, “treat everyone according to his just desserts, and who among us would escape a whipping?” You must temper justice with mercy. So much of what is punished by police officers or judges is punished because of who is doing it. It occurred to me today that I do not recall the last time that I had a juvenile client held at the Richmond Detention Center who was white, and I have been working on the juvenile docket for almost a year now.
Nic: Imagine the state as a family. In that family, a public defender is the uncle who nobody likes and nobody wants to be around. But he's still a part of the family, and you've got to invite him to the reunions. You can’t get rid of us, and we’re always going to have something to say even though we know that you don’t want us there. We're a state agency that actually exists to serve the people. I know the people. I’ve sat with the people. I’ve laughed with the people. I’ve cried with the people. I’ve been to where the people are. I know what the people are going through.
Richmond Justice: You both speak with such conviction about the work that you do, and the terrible situations in which you meet your clients. With this as your day job, can you ever turn it off? Are you ever able to detach?
Julia: If I thought all the time about the worst things that happen to my clients, I would not be functional. I think this will serve me well. I think I have the right combination of detachment and compassion to be able to stick it out. Nic, I worry that you might have too much compassion.
Julia: Honestly, it’s never really gone. It’s rare for me to fall asleep without having thought about a case since leaving the office. And there are certain things—from TV shows to casual conversations with friends—that will immediately put me back into work mode. Whenever I hear about someone charged with a crime, I think, "Well, yes, but..." That annoys some people. But they just don’t hang out with me anymore.
Nic: I cannot detach. I’ve tried to detach. I’ve been told that I need to detach. I’ve been told that I am going to burn out. Who knows? I dream about this stuff. This is not a job that you’re ever really done with, until you quit. When you’re a public defender, there is no 9-to-5. At certain points you stop, to sleep or eat, but then pick it up again right where you left it. No matter when, no matter what, I’ve got people in jail. And since I'm a public defender, my clients didn’t get to pick me. They haven't said, “I like your style, so I want to put my future in your hands.” But they're giving you everything just the same, and begging, "please help."
Julia: I think it would be helpful for people to realize how much they don’t know about the way the criminal justice system works, and about the people who are in it and why they are there. That could make a huge difference in the amount of compassion that you see. Instead, we see an us-versus-them mentality that doesn't reflect reality and isn't particularly constructive.
Nic: There's a saying that there are three sides to every story: one side, the other side, and the truth. But there are so many sides to every story. No matter what your situation, when you’re looking at someone else, you should know that but for the grace of God, that could be you. That could be your son, your daughter, your best friend, your father, your cousin. Something or some series of things in your life meant that you didn't wind up in that situation. Know that to be true. Understand that. And listen. We were all born with a clean slate, and then things happened—some good, some bad. Listen to people, and then you can help to figure those things out.
—interviewed February 19, 2016