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Public Interest Law Project

Dana Gross

June 01, 2012

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Office of the Alameda County Public Defender

The Alameda County Public Defender (ACPD) defends indigent people charged with a crime in Alameda County—the seventh most populous county in California, encompassing 14 incorporated cities and several unincorporated communities. There are more than 1.5 million people living in Alameda County, including in the city of Oakland. There is no majority racial or ethnic group in Alameda County. ACPD is the second oldest Public Defender office in the United States. In 1927, Earl Warren, then the Alameda County District Attorney (later Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court), successfully campaigned to have the Public Defender included in the new County Charter. Today, the nearly 100 attorneys at ACPD handle a caseload of over 4,500 new legal matters every month, including support of innovative programs to serve its clients (including Homeless and Caring Court, Parole Reentry Court, and Collaborative Court) working to address some of the legal barriers in these particular communities.

This summer, my PILP stipend allowed me to work at ACPD. It was my privilege and honor to assist clients facing a very difficult time in their life. I got to work on a number of interesting research projects, including the ban on multiple prosecutions for the same crime, the right to a speedy trial, and the intent required for aggravated mayhem (“A person is guilty of aggravated mayhem when he or she unlawfully, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the physical or psychological well-being of another person, intentionally causes permanent disability or disfigurement of another human being or deprives a human being of a limb, organ, or member of his or her body. For purposes of this section, it is not necessary to prove an intent to kill. Aggravated mayhem is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for life with the possibility of parole.” Cal. Pen. Code §205). I conducted many intake interviews for in-custody and out-of-custody clients, conducted conflict checks, toured the 4,000 person county jail, and assisted senior attorneys preparing for preliminary hearings or trial.

My most cherished experiences, however, involved working with clients individually, and making my first appearances in court on their behalf. Weekly, I advocated for clients struggling to become or remain in compliance with court-mandated services, like AA meetings or domestic violence counseling.  I assisted clients negotiate restitution agreements, and helped resolve cases. I helped homeless court prepare for its every-other-month date at a local homeless shelter. I also ran motions to release clients on their own recognizance, to enforce the right to speedy trial, and to suppress evidence that was gathered in violation of the fourth amendment.

Many people have said that working in a public defender’s office is to catch a glimpse from the inside out. That’s true. Usually, we hear about monsters committing crimes. But this summer, I did not meet any monsters: mostly just people who were going through a very hard time. I worked one-on-one with prostitutes with learning disabilities, long-term homeless addicts and alcoholics, former city employees fighting drug problems, nonprofit workers and family caregivers charged with embezzling, among others.This demanding internship was an extraordinary opportunity to receive an intensive courtroom advocacy experience while filling a need for indigent legal representation, and my summer reaffirmed my goal to work for a public defender after graduation. Thanks, PILP!

 

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