Sophia Chang

Sophia ChangLos Angeles County Public Defender's Office

Los Angeles, Calif.

Sophia Chang will be clerking for the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office. At this office, attorneys and other staff render legal services to individuals who have been accused of public offenses.

June 25, 2013

I am in my fourth week of my internship at the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office. As a law clerk I am currently working in a specialized unit at the, focusing specifically on cases that are eligible for resentencing under California's recently passed Proposition 36. Due to California's current Three Strikes law, which imposes a life sentence for almost any crime, this including petty theft or simple possession of drugs, if a defendant has two prior convictions for crimes designated as "serious" or "violent." Prop 36 eliminates unintended and ineffective life sentences currently imposed for nonviolent, non-serious crimes. This would save taxpayers $100 million per year and relieve the overcrowding issues in prison.

Under the supervision of the deputy in charge of the Public Integrity Assurance Section of the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office, I handle cases that fit the criteria of Prop 36, but have been opposed by the District Attorney due to issues of insuitability, such as defendant's criminal history, the type of crimes they committed, disciplinary and rehabilitation records while incarcerated, and other evidence the court determines to be relevant in deciding whether a new sentence may be an unreasonable risk of danger to society.

I have been assigned to write response motions to mitigate any negative information in those records, to highlight my client's success, and to fight the District Attorney's perception of the client as a danger to society. As such, I look into my client's personal history, family history, drug and alcohol history, and positive prison behavior to illustrate the circumstances of the client's life, or circumstances surrounding the crime, that warrant resentencing.

In addition to the opposition cases, I also work on other cases where the District Attorney has conceded the individual is eligible and suitable for resentencing. However, before they can be resentenced, I develop transition plans that are presented to the judge to ensure a smooth transition back into society. I gather information and talk to clients and the client's family members to see if they will have that emotional support from their family, friends, church, community, etc. In addition to emotional support, the transition plans also focuses on ensuring housing security, job placement, training or education, relapse prevention or rehab, and medical or mental health needs.

Working this summer thus far has been an insightful, challenging, and invaluable experience. Talking to the clients and helping them transition back into society after serving 10 years or more in prison has taught me that despite their previous setbacks they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to rehabilitate and become a law-abiding citizen. Hearing their appreciation and knowing that I have helped a family reunite when they believed their father, brother, uncle or friend would be locked away for life, provides a sense of fulfillment. I look forward to what lies ahead in the remainder of my internship.

Aug. 16, 2013

This summer I was able to experience two very different areas of public defense. During my first rotation I worked with the Public Integrity Assurance Sector (PIAS). At that branch I focused exclusively on post-conviction work. My time there proved to be insightful. The aspect I enjoyed most while at PIAS was the direct impact I was making through the transition plans. In addition I had the opportunity to build relationships with clients and family members in the process of putting together the transition plans. This connection I was making provided a satisfaction that I as making a difference in the world by helping others, specifically the downtrodden.

The fact that my work has made a tremendous impact has made my experience very satisfying. However, I also learned that not all cases can be helped given the severity of their crime, despite how much they have changed. I learned as attorneys we cannot become too emotionally vested. Social work intervention is limited to helping lawyers achieve case dispositions for clients. Once a case is over, so is the relationship with the client. After my first rotation I began to ponder and reassess a very fundamental question: What does it means to be a public defender and how do we ensure the clients receive effective representation? Clearly there are limitations imposed by government officials who seek to satisfy the bare minimal constitutional requirements in regards to representation, but is that really enough?

An aspect I found interesting while working with various public defenders was that they went beyond the norm of what they were supposed to do. This illustrated their passion to help individuals refocus their lives and figure out what was really in their best interest.

During my second rotation, I worked with felony and misdemeanor trial lawyers at the Alhambra Superior Court. While at this branch I quickly realized the relationship between the lawyers and clients varied. Some clients were grateful for the assistance, while other were nonchalant. Although the traditional defender office is lawyer-driven and case-oriented, I learned the public defense culture centered on the crowning achievement of successfully taking the case to trial. Despite the fact that most cases settled, there was a handful that did make it to trial.

In my overall experience, I've discovered that the lawyers here went above and beyond in caring and effectively advocating on behalf of their client. They not only addressed the client's immediate legal needs, by removing or reducing the imminent threat of incarceration, but also by making sure they received the necessary treatment in hopes their client would not reoffend. The aspect I loved the most while at this branch was the fact that all the attorneys worked together as a cohesive unit.

My experience at the Los Angeles County Public Defenders has given me a better understanding as to what public defenders do and the type of impact they make. I've learned based on the type of assignments this was not for the fainthearted. My assignments ranged from the most extreme murder cases to child molestation to low-level crimes such as identity theft and possession of narcotics. My experience at the Alhambra branch has been extremely satisfying. The public defenders here come to work with the desire to help people, to create a better criminal justice system, and to make a difference.

My goal for this summer was to figure out whether criminal defense was an area I should pursue. This experience has confirmed that this is the type of work I would like to get into. After this eye-opening experience, I now have more of an appreciation for public defenders and the amount of time and hard work they put into for each client. Despite the amount of stress and heavy caseload, all the attorneys that I had the privilege to work with shared a passion for this type of work and genuinely enjoyed their job. Seeing their trial skills and aggressive courtroom advocacy made my experience very memorable. In short, this was a very rewarding experience and I hope to return to the Public Defenders in the near future.

Sullivan Hall