Humanizing justice-involved individuals is what I have long been most passionate about, especially in this time of mass incarceration. I’m most in my element when I’m at the forefront of decriminalizing mental health conditions, seeking to end collateral consequences, advancing collaborative court programs for rehabilitation, and zealous defense in a moment of crisis. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to work as a Certified Law Clerk for the Office of the Federal Defender for the Eastern District of California. I thank Linda Allison and Rachelle Barbour greatly for this position.
Taking up a position in the Misdemeanor Unit of the Federal Defender’s Office was no small task. I already had a summer of experience representing juveniles in the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office. This was a far greater role. From the very start of this clinic, I took up my own caseload. I had my own clients to represent on initial appearance in the bimonthly courts: CVB and Veteran’s Courts. My role included jumping into a case set for trial weeks after I started. Though we ultimately did not go to trial, I gained valuable skills in case analysis, client interviewing and management, plea negotiation, and legal research. I was, and still am, acting in the role of an attorney.
Roughly six months have passed since I started at the Federal Defender Clinic at McGeorge School of Law. It is a constant learning experience. There is always something new and exciting that comes to the Misdemeanor Unit. I have made mistakes. I have had moments of, “Oh man, I forgot about that,” and plenty of moments of frustration. But, I’ve also had victories, incredibly rewarding victories. The moments where I’m helping a client in crisis remind me of why this work is so important. What feels like a small victory to me can mean the world to my client, whether it’s having their voice heard, having a fine, or avoiding a harsher conviction. These victories have real-world importance.
I’m not entirely sure where my path leads post-bar. For years I’ve wanted to be a public defender, but more and more I see the bigger issues that plague our justice system. I may continue with criminal defense or I may move towards public policy advocacy. What I know is that my skills gained in this clinic will not be wasted. I will always dedicate my work to creating a justice system that humanizes the lives thrown into it. These are people, not just case numbers on a docket. Their lives matter just as much as any other. They have a story to tell, and if we are to judge them in our society, then we have an obligation to hear that story and create a better society from it.
By Jacob Mendelson, a third-year law student at McGeorge School of Law.