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I wanted to bow to my client

Northern Virginia criminal defense lawyer on humanizing and having compassion for criminal defendants

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A client of mine recently got sentenced to a few months in jail. He got the minimum active jail sentence available in this mandatory minimum sentencing matter, and it was a great result under the circumstances that could have been sentenced much more harshly particularly by numerous other judges. This result took a lot of team effort between me and him.

So much of the criminal justice system can be dehumanizing. To his credit, my client’s judge has retained a heart through all his years on the General District Court and Circuit Court trial bench, when so many judges become jaded at best and heartless-seeming at a darker part of the continuum. The sheriff’s deputy, as nice as he seems to be, nevertheless turned my client — who had remained out of jail until his sentencing date — into just one more new inmate to be handcuffed, searched once removed from the courtroom, taken to the jail, assigned an inmate number, and ultimately put through the daily effort to make a routine out of caging people: wake up, three daily eats that are nothing to write home about, various daily activities, and lights out; then the numbing routine starts again the next day and the next and the next, as caged and warehoused human beings.

Not many of my clients agree with one of my earlier teenaged clients who responded to my warnings of jail risks for not straightening out a simple particular matter, by his likening jail to summer camp. I have been to three summer camps, and none of them come close to the human-caging system of jail.

My client and I have spent a lot of time together over many months. His family and I have gotten to know one another as well. I know how human he is, as are all my clients. It is my obligation and honor to humanize my clients in the process of relating with them, motivating them in the team together with me, telling their story as persuasively as I can in negotiations and court proceedings, and helping them for the long haul.

As the deputy sheriff was “processing” my client in the courtroom and the next case was called, obligating me to move towards the back of the courtroom, I stood still further back in the large courtroom, in respect for my client, praying silently for his well being and that of his family, while exhalting over our great success in not going one minute over the mandatory minimum sentencing statute. If my client were from a bowing tradition, I would have bowed, but to honor my client in the courtroom, I am going to do what is meaningful and comfortable to him.

My client is in the jail across the street from my office. I will visit him from time to time. I will be the only visitor other than clergy or those leading programs in the jail, who will be able to see him without the cold glass barrier that separates inmates physically and sound-wise from non-lawyer visitors. I am sure my client’s family will visit him on every family visiting day that is set aside once a week, and that they will talk on the phone during the week. That is all a far cry from being home together, without the protocol of jail and the ever-watchful eye of the sheriff’s deputies overseeing the place.

A few months in jail might seem like much less than the many years that countless people suffer when convicted for the felonies that involve harsh mandatory minimum sentencing and harsh voluntary sentencing guidelines. Nevertheless, no matter how long or short the jail sentence, no inmate enjoys the first day nor those that follow it in jail or prison.

I like my client. I like most of them. I am bowing to them all.