Balancing the scales of justice


Alice Yu

[heading]Second in a six-part series covering the criminal justice system[/heading][dropcap style=”flat” size=”3″]B[/dropcap]efore spending five and a half years as a public defender and graduating from law school, Jeremy Pilkington was sure criminal law was not the path for him.
He started law school with the thought, “I’m going to go to law school, but I’m not going to do criminal law because it’s too heavy. Geez, I’m either putting people in prison or keeping people out of prison. That’s not the kind of life I want for myself.”

Yet, that type of life is what he’s living right now, and it’s one that he’s proud to have.
Behind the man whose passion for public defense flows through his actions and lights up his eyes is a history of trials and errors. Pilkington entered college undecided and then turned to an emphasis on psychology only to end up graduating with a degree in criminal justice. Unpleased with the two careers he was left to partake in with a criminal justice system degree — a warden or policeman — he continued his studies and applied for law school. He resisted criminal law, but ended up finding passion in the very one sector he tried to avoid.
“I knew, ‘I want to be a lawyer, but I don’t want to be someone who’s life is overrun with work. I don’t want to work 60, 70, 80 hours just to make rich people richer. That’s just not going to do it for me,’” Pilkington said. “I went and sat in on a presentation by the Missouri State Public Defender system and as these people talked about their experiences, I was just kind of sitting there like, ‘Holy cow, they’re putting things into words that I felt but haven’t been able to put into words. I feel like I’m just one of these people. I think there’s something here that needs to be explored.’”
The first summer after he attended the presentation, he took on an internship with the public defender office in Moberly. Then in spring of 2009, Pilkington begin interning with the Columbia office and became a full-time public defender in September of 2010.
“It wasn’t like as a kid, I knew I wanted to be an attorney, and going into law school, it wasn’t like I knew I wanted to be involved in criminal law, much less a defense attorney, but bit by bit, experience by experience, it was like, ‘OK, this is who I am. This is what I care about. This is the people that I care about,’” Pilkington said. “It’s a unique job. It’s not for everybody. Not a lot of people could do this job or would want to do this job, but I do and so it just kind of reinforces that notion that, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m probably made for this.’”
While the general job description of public defender takes just four words — representing defendants in court — each word represents hundreds of phone calls, numerous visits to jails and prisons, thousands of emails and countless court appearances. First comes the assignment, then comes the evidence, which calls for analysis and review. Meetings with clients are in order, and court appearances are scheduled, sometimes just the first of many visits to the judge. To an outsider, the legal system can seem like a web that even a flowchart can’t simplify, but with 1,491 finished cases and 141 pending cases as of February, Pilkington is well-equipped to serve as a guide through the maze of criminal law.
infographic by Joy Park
“Another term that’s used for attorney is counselor and I think that’s very accurate sometimes,” Pilkington said. “A big part of our job is explaining to them this big process that has been initiated by the filing of this criminal charge. ‘Here are your rights along the way, here are your options.’ We can lay all that out very clearly, but there’s that next step where you say, ‘Here’s my concerns with going to trial. Here’s my concerns if you lose a trial in terms of the consequences.’ I do think that’s an important part of it.”
Members of the probation and parole board on the other hand, are tasked with serving as the checks and balances for the process of releasing inmates; they make sure those who are released back into society are prepared to re-enter the world as law-abiding citizens.
Aaron Jarrett is a unit supervisor in the South Center Correctional Center and works with the probation and parole board, which he served on from 2007 to 2013. Jarrett and his staff hold monthly parole hearings and special reports. In addition, they also determine appropriate release dates for inmates. In a special report, an officer sends a report with the purpose of alerting the parole board of possible violations, such as possession of a weapon or intoxicants.
“If we see stuff that kind of alarms us, we make the parole board aware of it and [with] some of that, we can change release dates [and] we can ask for new special conditions,” Jarrett said. “What I’m trying to get at is we don’t just let somebody walk out without knowing what’s been going on. We’re always double-checking.”
When reviewing someone for parole, members of the parole board take into account the age of incarceration and age of projected release as well as their criminal, substance abuse and substance abuse treatment history. Board members have a structured system that takes into account all parties involved, even reviewing letters of opposition, letters of support and reviewing the victims.
A veteran of the criminal justice system for 27 years, Kelly Dills’ position is to maintain and improve the parole process. As the Board Operations Director at the Probation and Parole Central Office, she is responsible for overseeing parole hearing analysts and parole board members of correctional facilities, as well as reviewing proposed legislation and approving procedures.
“I would like the general public to understand that 95 percent of all inmates will eventually leave a correctional facility and return to their communities. What the board understands is that is making a parole release decision often leaves one party unhappy — either the crime victim or the offender,” Dills said. “The board must weigh the relevant factors, and approach decision making with an eye toward satisfying statutory minimums and retribution, and balance that with the readiness of the offender to reenter the community without resorting to new offenses.”
Behind the police investigations and parole check-ups lies a special division for each institution — the gang task force. Members of this task force record and document each client’s tattoos as a way to track gang movement and link affiliations. For example, a tattoo with ‘314’ or any variation could point to an affiliation with a St. Louis-based gang.
“These guys are ingenious when it comes to creating tattoos, and some tattoos have gang affiliation. You’ll get guys that won’t admit to involvement in the prisons, but specific tattoos pretty much lay out their involvement,” Jarrett said. “Then when they go with, say, one of my officers or myself at the parole hearing, we’ll ask them about that gang affiliation, and we may just share something with them that they didn’t know we knew about. A lot of times you’ll get guys that’ll go ahead and come clean and discuss it. The best thing these prisons can do is to try and track it. If we have an issue that comes up that’s gang-related, guys will get moved to other facilities and we’ll kind of split it up.”
Surrounded by the more heinous side of human nature, Jarrett had to learn how to keep his emotional investment as a probation and parole officer separate from his home life.
Jarrett’s first year on the job was a year of firsts; he also began potty-training his first and oldest daughter who at the time was a toddler. Working through the flow of work on Friday before heading home for the weekend to join his little girl, he reviewed a case for which he had an interview scheduled for Monday. The contents of that report haunted him for the rest of the weekend. In this particular report, the inmate was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after beating his three-year-old daughter to the point of death, all because she wet her pants.
“That is one of the few times I’ve actually had a case go home with me and actually affect me at home,” Jarrett said. “This caused me a little stress and anxiety that someone could do that. I changed up my Fridays after that. I no longer did file reviews. What I did was the paperwork we may have build up in the week; if a guy gets a new sentence or jail credit, we’ll review those and let the board know.”
From the paperwork to the reviews to the hearings, Jarrett’s days at work are considerably structured and laid out. In addition, he’s also an adjunct professor at Drury University’s Criminal Justice Department, teaching courses such as Correctional Systems, Ethics in Criminal Justice and Comparative Criminal Justice, and Probation and Parole.
“Individuals also have different aspirations and goals to their day. Some individuals, they just want to go home safe and come back the next day,” Jarrett said. “For me, I have the opportunity to work in the prison or out in the field. Personally, I prefer the institutional setting. There’s not very many places that you can sit down with somebody who may be in prison for a murder and actually get them to tell you why they did it. That’s one of the aspects I’ve always, I don’t want to say enjoy, but I find it interesting.”
The causes of crime are as complex as the criminal justice system that serves to correct such behavior. From poverty and substance abuse to parental neglect and low self-esteem, there are many factors that are connected to explaining why people commit crimes.
“I’ve dealt with individuals that were honestly at the wrong place at the wrong time. Hanging out down at whatever local hangout, somebody talks them into going with them, and they get caught in a stolen car or whatever,” Jarrett said. “Law enforcement doesn’t really differentiate if two individuals are in a stolen car. They’ve lived their life where they stay out of trouble and then they’ve had that one day in life where it just unraveled. For others, it’s just a continuation of a behavior they began as a juvenile and a lot of that can be due to a lack of proper role models in their lives.”
But the past is past, and even members of the criminal justice system can’t turn back time. While correctional centers cannot undo the crimes, they certainly seek to remedy it. Just recently, the Department of Corrections found success in a pilot program meant to encourage positive behavior.
This program, which was first implemented in the Moberly Correctional Center, paired inmates with serious mental health issues with an offender sponsor. The offender sponsor would then communicate with them and encourage them to partake in daily activities, such as shower times and meal times.
“The offender sponsor will actually go to these guys and say, ‘Hey, it’s time to get your showers done,’ or ‘Let’s pull your stuff out and get yourselves cleaned up,’” Jarrett said. “They’ve actually responded a lot better to an individual that’s equal with them, or that they view was equal.”
In the Department of Corrections, employees make it point to treat clients and staff equally; part of their motto is the belief of being firm, fair and consistent in all interactions. In many cases, discrepancies in treatment of fellow co-workers and the clients in the correctional center can be hard to overcome.
“Among the offenders, I’ve got a reputation for being very direct. I don’t sugarcoat any response. Basically, you can say they read people for a living. They’re reading exactly what we say, how we say it and even on mannerisms, which is a lot of what I get paid to do. The way I treat them is just due to the fact that I know they’re adept to that and it’s a disservice,” Jarrett said. “If they think I’m sugarcoating, then they may not respond very well in the future, so I’ve gotten the reputation of being honest, in some cases, you can also say it’s brutally honest, but they respond a lot better to that because I have nothing to gain based on what I’m telling them.”
The Parole Central Office trains employees in motivational interviewing, a way of communication developed by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick meant to assist in the process of changing behavior that is harming to the individual or those around him. This process is centered around asking open-ended questions and making suggestions rather than forceful decisions.
“The reality is that most all non-uniformed staff, with the exception of support staff, are trained in motivational interview techniques, which are woven throughout job classifications,” Dills said. “The concept that people can change and that every conversation is an opportunity to foster motivation to do so, is central to our daily interactions. Similarly, custody and support staff are trained in verbal judo and de-escalation techniques.”
Just as correctional centers want to give inmates the education and help they need to become contributing citizens to society again, Pilkington works with defendants who are sometimes just looking to be treated fairly and with dignity.
“People always ask, ‘How can you do what you do?’ and they largely mean, ‘How can you fight for people that are guilty?’ and that’s whole other level of conversation and it’s absolutely worthy, but one thing I think there’s a big misconception about is people think criminal defendants, they just want to not be held responsible for whatever it is that they’ve done, if they’ve done something,” Pilkington said. “That little phrase there brings me to one. Not everybody’s guilty and even people who are guilty of something, they’re not guilty of the things they’re charged with, and so that’s what I would want people to understand. People don’t necessarily want to get off if they’ve done something wrong. Sometimes people just want to be treated fairly, to get the same deal that someone who get if they had money. People just want to be heard and understood and treated fairly.”
Unfortunately, the Missouri State Public Defender System (MSPD) is both understaffed and underfunded. According to The Missouri Project, a report prepared by Rubin Brown on behalf of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, public defenders in Missouri are consistently spending an average of 27.3 hours less than deemed sufficient to represent various cases.
While paperwork for Pilkington sometimes serves as a thorn in his side, it’s the supporting actress in parole officer Aaron Jarrett’s life. For Class A or B felonies — such as murder, rape or other crimes that are considered to be heinous — the sufficient time frame to work within is around 47.6 hours. Public defenders on average are only able to spend 8.7 hours.
“I love what I do enough that the passion gets me past the burnout, but on the lower level, it happens maybe multiple times in a week because the circumstances are hard and frustrating and not what you would want particularly in terms of the caseload,” Pilkington said. “I’m never so frustrated as when I feel like I can’t do the work for my client that I need to do because I’ve got these other things to worry about.”
These statistics prompted MSPD to implement a policy change on March 1, 2013 that calls for employees to keep time-logs in five-minute increments to aid MSPD management in their workload studies, according to their 2014 annual report. With this information, MSPD hopes to better appropriate resources, but in between making phone calls, sending emails and visiting jails, prisons and courts, the extra work and logs may be contributing toward a greater cause, but it’s just another thing on top of a mountain of work.
“Sometimes you’re answering phone calls, and it’s this client saying, ‘Hey, why isn’t this getting done?’ and you go yeah, and then I make it my focus and then I get this phone call from this other client who feels the same way,” Pilkington said. “These guys are waiting in jail a lot of the time. I’m only one guy and I want to serve all these people well, and I can’t because I’m being pulled in too many directions because that’s the hand we’re dealt. Part of the job is learning to cope with that. I don’t think you can ignore it, but you can’t be overcome by it.”
As of 2014, the turnover rate for Missouri public defenders rests at 11.37 percent. In the mid-2000s, MSPD’s turnover rate was at a disheartening 20-22 percent. Faced with this statistic, the organization began repositioning salary adjustments to help their attorneys meet the financial demands of students loans (which are around $60,000 to $200,000) and supporting a family. In 2009 turnover rates were as low as 7.46 percent, only to climb up to 15.97 percent in 2013.
With these existing restraints, the expectation to serve justice where it is due is at risk. Time and money working may be working against employees in the criminal justice system, but they still seek a way to use what sparse finances the system has to bridge the financial gap for defendants and how their case is treated.
“Justice isn’t just my client not getting punished. Sometimes it’s reduced to, ‘Oh, everybody just wants to get off, everybody wants to not be held responsible,’ and that’s not always the case,” Pilkington said. “When you can get the same result for a client that doesn’t have any money that someone who paid their private attorney a lot of money, when they end up with the same result in similar situations, that feels good. Now, the amount of money this person has did not determine their ultimate outcome.”
The time constraints and a crushing workload amplify the pressure and stress of making sure justice is served. William Blackstone, an English judge and jurist of the 18th-century held the belief that, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But in a world where right and wrong are hardly black and white, mistakes are costly and stealing time away from a innocent man is just as heinous of an act.
[quote cite=”Jeremy Pilkington “]You don’t want to fail because the consequences are great. There’s something about the fact that you’re not bearing the consequences[/quote] “You don’t want to fail because the consequences are great. There’s something about the fact that you’re not bearing the consequences,” Pilkington said. “My mistake isn’t paid for by me. My mistake is paid for by someone else, at least that’s how it feels, in terms of, ‘I didn’t get my point across to the judge.’ I didn’t convince them of the point I was trying to make, that this could be addressed short of prison or that this was the cause and here’s why you don’t need to worry about this happening again.”
In a study by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, the findings indicated a false conviction rate for those sentenced to death in America could be as high as 4.1 percent — and that’s a conservative estimate. Without an omnipotent force recording every single movement of every single person, it’s difficult to piece together the time before someone stepped over the line of citizen into criminal. Instead, the court is sometimes left to scrutinized snippets of information that lend themselves to little information and unreliable witness accounts tainted by the misinformation effects. There are times when a defendant’s case does not yield itself to a solid ‘not guilty’ plea, but in times like these, it’s not the public defender’s decision whether or not to go to trial.
“That’s absolutely part of the job, and if you’re going to do this job, you better be prepared to handle that situation because it’s not your decision. It’s theirs and it should be theirs and you work for them and you carry it out regardless of your personal thoughts,” Pilkington said. “But you can’t go too far the other way and say, ‘Hey, it’s up to you, I’m just here to tell you the evidence.’ I do think it’s important to give them advice because you have a certain insight having done this job.”
In the case of a ‘not guilty’ plea, the legal system then has a fork in the road with two different trials: a bench trial in which the judge decides the sentencing or a jury trial in which a jury decides the sentencing. A bench trial — which is short enough a judge can get through multiple in a day — is usually used when the prosecutor and defendant can’t enter an agreement and decide a judge would make a better judgement than a jury. The risk lies in the fact that in a bench trial, the full range of punishment is available to the judge.
A jury trial normally calls for more preparation, from combing through evidence and finding inconsistencies in the state’s case, to subpoenaing witnesses and writing opening and closing statements. A five-minute witness examination could very well be the painstaking result of the hours spent on writing cross or direct examination questions and public speaking preparation.
“Even if it went to trial and they got found guilty, they wanted a trial. They wanted to have someone fight for them; they wanted to have their voice heard. That’s what we did,” Pilkington said. “Even if it didn’t ultimately convince the judge or the jury, at least they went down the way they wanted to go down which was fighting and trying to get someone to believe their story. So there can be some things to be gleaned from even the ultimately unsuccessful adventures.”
It’s certainly no secret corruption and bribery exists in the courts and it’d be childish to believe police officers, lawyers and judges are saints free from the the more morally divergent side of human nature. While extortion and misconduct is certainly a beast to slay, the public defender system serves to eliminate discriminatory gaps in a human’s ability to protect his rights.
“When you can feel like despite the constraints that I deal with, despite this person being poor or uneducated or disadvantaged in other ways — mental illness, education level — I was able to ensure that they were treated fairly,” Pilkington said. “That feels good and a lot of times, the client realizes that, so you get that from them. Sometimes you don’t, sometimes you just have to know within yourself, ‘I did a dang good job of representing that person and I feel like either they ended up with the outcome they wanted in terms of the actual outcome or like they made their decision.”
From police corruption to overworked employees, the criminal justice system is far from perfect. Behind the understaffed, underfunded programs, however, are dedicated individuals who work to maintain the integrity of justice from all different sides, from the navigating the legal system to correcting and shaping individuals to enter society as law-abiding citizens.

“Our system is broken in a lot of ways, but we do have one of the better ones in the world. I’m proud to play a role in that,” Pilkington said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a criminal defense attorney at heart and I care about my clients, but there are victims of crime in this world and they deserve their justice as well. I don’t have a desire to do that half of it, it’s good that someone’s doing that half of it, but I’m proud to be doing my half of it so that overall, we can have justice in a bigger sense.”
Are you interested in working in the criminal justice system? If so, what are some of your main worries?