“Laura, I’m going to marry my girlfriend, and I’m going to invite you to the wedding,” said the big, grown man as his eyelids welled up with tears. He stretched out his hand and gave a bouquet of flowers to Laura Glass-Hess, the public defender who argued his case after he did a simple favor for a friend: he dropped off a box at the post office—a box he didn’t know was filled with cocaine. Laura gave him a second chance at life.
“That is the best day—that’s the absolute best day—when you can really make something happen, and you think, this is right. This is justice,” says Laura, who just celebrated her fifth year as a public defender in Maricopa County, providing free, high-quality legal representation to the indigent who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers.
A bad day is when she fights hard for a client and wins the case, only to find the client back in jail six months later. “It’s like pushing a rock up a hill,” she says.
“You can get kind of jaded,” Laura says. “You get lied to so much. Clients tell you things, and you check it out and find they lied to you—like you swore your DNA wouldn’t be on that gun, and it was.” But just when that happens, she says, she’ll get an honestly innocent client.
“It keeps you on your toes to keep an open mind and not judge people too quickly—you have to give people the benefit of the doubt,” she says.
Drawn In By Justice
Many people have asked Laura, “How do you help all those terrible people?” But her years in the field have given her a different perspective.
Some of Laura’s clients started on drugs—drugs like cocaine—in elementary school. They grew up in dangerous neighborhoods and saw friends being killed. They went to three different schools in one year. Their fathers abused them; they watched their mothers being abused.
I wanted to help the people who had everything stacked against them.
“My clients don’t know what normal is,” Laura says, adding that as children, many of her clients looked at their fathers in prison and swore they’d never be like that. Then they end up in prison. “It’s almost like they don’t know any other way. So they’re upset; they know that’s not right, but they just don’t know any other way to be.”
As a public defender, Laura’s job isn’t to absolve the guilty but to give everyone a fair chance and some dignity in the process of being tried for a crime. “I wanted to help the people who [had] everything… stacked against [them],” she says. “Seriously, everything is stacked against you when you’re charged with a felony and you’re sitting in jail—it’s really hard. I’m their only chance.” She says that if someone clearly is guilty, the evidence will speak for itself; then, her goal is to get the client a good plea agreement.
“Just because you’re guilty doesn’t mean you should get the harshest sentence there is,” Laura says, describing how prison sentences in Arizona are particularly harsh, as the system focuses more on retribution than rehabilitation, and people typically come out of prison worse than when they went in.
“My job is so much about just putting bandaids on what’s already broken. There’s so much prevention that should have been done but, instead, they’re here,” she says, citing specifically the need to help kids realize their actions have consequences.
“If we can teach kids impulse control, that’s huge for keeping them out of prison,” she says.
To help with this prevention, Laura volunteers as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring a young teen girl in her community.
Grace In Return
While Laura revels in the moments when her clients are justly served or given a second chance, sometimes her hard work doesn’t seem to pay off. Many of her clients expect her to work miracles, she says, and some curse at her when they don’t get their way. While that can hurt, it’s more upsetting when she spends herself on a case but still ends up with an unjust sentence. Then, the client and his or her community are the ones who hurt the most.
If you can give somebody a second chance and they realize that it’s a second chance, I think that’s the power of grace.
One 21-year-old client, she says, was facing 20 years in prison—an unjustly harsh sentence, given the crime—but Laura couldn’t get the prosector to back down. She was enraged by the lack of justice and expected the client’s family to be furious at her.
“I just felt so impotent,” she says, “but they were so gracious to me. It was very humbling. I actually did nothing for them, and I felt like a complete failure.”
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