When discussing my job as an attorney at a firm specializing in criminal defense, I often receive sideways looks from otherwise well meaning friends and family. While they generally come up with gentler ways to ask, the common question is, "so you defend criminals for a living?"
The simple answer is that I defend those accused of criminal conduct for a living. However, the issue requires more thought despite the average citizen's desire to boil it down to right versus wrong or good versus bad. Notwithstanding the modern media's efforts to the contrary, each defendant is entitled not just to the presumption of innocence until guilt has been proven, but also to an attorney who will zealously guard their legal rights. In a society where we have granted the government the ability to deprive individuals of their liberty, a basic human right according to our founding fathers, there does and ought to exist a check on state and federal prosecution.
Outside of ideological discussions of rights, justice, and the role of the state, my job as a defense attorney doesn't quite consist of "putting criminals back on the streets." In many cases, a client's guilt is not in question. So, in those instances, why not just subject a defendant to sentencing and move on to the next case without waste of precious resources?
The answer is that, without an attorney protecting a defendant's rights, no one else would. While the prosecutor has an obligation to ensure that misconduct does not take place, it is certainly not his or her job to simultaneously keep watch for the rights of the accused. In an adversarial system, the balance to the power entrusted with the state lies in the defense attorney. Even in cases not proceeding to trial, this involves negotiating plea agreements that account for the criminal history of the accused, facts supporting sentencing reduction, dismissal of unsupportable charges, and providing an opportunity for the defendant to assist the state with ongoing investigations in exchange for a more favorable sentence. Additionally, a thorough understanding of the facts of a case allows for the defense attorney to provide a more complete picture to the judge when a case arrives at sentencing.
Outside of cases where the defendant is wrongly accused, the need for defense attorneys becomes most obvious when the defendant is indignant and otherwise would not have anyone in his or her corner. Whether it is a routine misdemeanor or more serious felony conviction, an active jail sentence is not necessarily in the interest of justice. Without meeting with clients and understanding their history and other factors that should be taken into consideration by the court, sentences like probation, anger management, drug treatment, mental health services, or other more appropriate resolutions could easily be overlooked.
So, in answer to another cliché, "How do you sleep at night?" the answer is easy. With the knowledge of serving a vital role in our criminal justice system, very well, thank you.