Learning About the Criminal Justice System as a Summer Intern

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By: Abigail Whipple

When I started my fellowship at the Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office as a Summer Fellow from University at Buffalo School of Law, I watched fictional movies and documentaries that followed other individuals’ experiences with the criminal justice system. However, I had not personally interacted with the criminal justice system in any capacity. Because of my lack of experience, I was completely unaware of how many alternatives exist to incarceration.

One alternative to incarceration is successful completion of drug court. Drug use and poverty are often correlated, and a significant number of clients represented by the Public Defender’s Office have a history of drug use. These individuals may have been arrested for drug possession in the past, may have been on drugs when they were arrested, or may have committed a crime to get money to pay for drugs.

Here in Chautauqua County, prosecutors often include completion of Drug Court in the plea agreements they offer. Drug Courts, such as the Jamestown City Treatment Court, are designed to recuperate nonviolent offenders. They challenge the notion that punishment solves addiction. To successfully complete Drug Court, an individual is required to abstain from substance use and must report to the program for a set number of weeks. The final goal is to reach sobriety.

Another alternative to incarceration is probation. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to witness via Zoom a client sentenced to probation. He had been arrested for selling cocaine, a serious felony that usually carries a prison sentence. However, the District Attorney’s office offered the client a plea deal. He ultimately accepted the conviction for an attempted felony and was sentenced to probation. To stay out of prison, the client was required to continually check-in with his probation officer while maintaining sobriety and employment.

Still another alternative to incarceration is restitution.  In one case I worked on, a man stole tools from a warehouse. I observed a hearing in which the court attempted to determine the exact mechanism in which our client would pay restitution. Unfortunately, our client did not have the financial means to pay restitution because he was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The judge was willing to work with the client on repayment, and extended the amount of time in which our client had to pay.

Incarceration is not the only avenue to rehabilitation. In fact, incarceration often damages the individuals it is supposed to help. Incarceration can even be deadly; COVID-19 is known to spread especially quickly in jails Though the criminal justice system still has a plethora of issues, it is encouraging that judges are often open to alternatives to incarceration.

I want to thank UB Law Alumni Association’s Buffalo Public Interest Law Program for their generous fellowship. Without their support, I would not have had this wonderful opportunity.

picture 1 of 2Name: Abigail Whipple, ‘22

Name of Fellowship: UB Law Alumni Association Buffalo Public Interest Law Program

Placement: Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office

Location: Mayville, New York

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Incarceration is not the only method of rehabilitation.”

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