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Day in the life: A Kansas City public defender

A women waits to see her public defender at the Missouri State Public Defender's Office on 11th St. (Photo: Daniel Boothe | Flatland) A women waits to see her public defender at the Missouri State Public Defender's Office on 11th St. (Photo: Daniel Boothe | Flatland)
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8 minute read

Attorney Ruthie Russell, 32, received her law degree from St. Louis University and has been Missouri State public defender for the past six years. On Monday, September 28th, the Hale Center spent the day with Russell to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing a public defender in Kansas City. The following is an account of that day.

8:45 a.m.

Ruthie Russell sits at her desk on the 19th floor of 324 11th St., in downtown Kansas City, across the street from city hall. While her office has a spectacular view of downtown, overlooking the Sprint Center and stretching north all the way up to midtown, her face is buried in her daily planner.

This morning, court starts sharply at 9 a.m. While judges can be as late as they want to court, attorneys are expected to be there on time and prepared. Just before 9 a.m., Russell grabs her briefcase and heads for the elevator.

Court is across the street at city hall, so she has to move quickly. Russell is wearing high heels, but it’s still difficult to keep up with her brisk walk.

Russell has two clients that are being arraigned this morning. Although she has an incredibly busy day ahead of her, she is forced to wait her turn once she reaches the courtroom. In the criminal justice system, Russell explains, private attorneys get called by the judge first, and public defenders go last.

It’s a familiar routine, and one that she says has helped her develop patience.

“A lot of my job is, ‘Hurry up and wait,’” she says with a sigh.

Not only does this procedure waste time, Russell says, but it is also makes her look like a second-class attorney to her clients.

“My clients see that those with money don’t have to wait,” she says.

This morning she is covering for another public defender. A client of theirs has been summoned to court because he has cut off his electronic monitoring device and has gone missing. Though it is obvious to Russell that her client is not going to show up to court to be arrested, she nonetheless has to be there.

9:37 a.m.

After 30 minutes of watching other attorneys appear before the judge, Russell’s case is finally called. As expected, her client has not shown.

After five minutes and a “huge waste of time,” Russell leaves court and heads to jail at the Jackson County Department of Corrections. Cutting through the back door of the courthouse, Russell smiles and says hello to everyone she passes – attorneys, security workers, and janitors alike. It seems that everyone knows Russell, and everyone likes her.

Walking with a pace that suggests every second of her day is precious, Russell explains that like many of the public defenders in her office, she is overloaded with clients. Out of 100 defendants she represents, 41 are currently sitting in jail either awaiting arraignment or trial. The public defender’s office encourages attorneys to see clients who are in jail at least once a month. Already stretched thin, Russell says she does her best, but can’t always meet that demand.

“Sometimes I just don’t have the time to see them every month, so it becomes 45 days, sometimes longer, and no one should have to wait that long to see their attorney.”

And yet, Russell still makes two to three visits to the Jackson County jail per day.

“My job consists of going to the jail over and over,” Russell says. “Go to court, go to jail, go back to court, go back to jail.”

10:03 a.m.

Each jail visit takes at least 30 minutes per client. For instance, this morning, Russell has to register at the front desk, travel up to the floor where they keep the inmates, wait for the jail staff to get her client, go through security, wait for jail staff to unlock the doors, escort the inmate into a room, sit down, speak with her client, answer their questions and do all of that in enough time to get back to court. The clock is always ticking, so her visits must be brief.

“Is it quality time with my clients?” she says. “I don’t know. … I wish I could do more,” she says, her voice trailing off. She has just returned from speaking with her client, a 20-year-old autistic client who has been in jail since January. Russell is working hard to get him out of jail because she believes he is being held unlawfully. Her meetings always feel too short in jail, and this is no exception. Russell says this is one of the hardest parts of her job.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How do I defend the guilty?’ she says. “That is the easy part. It’s the innocent in jail that keep me up at night,” she says.

While she wishes she could stay longer, court will not wait, and Russell is due back in court for an arraignment.

10:45 a.m.

Outside of the packed courtroom in city hall, Russell spots her next client, a young African-American youth who has his face in his hands. He’s in his early 20s, and is clearly nervous. He has been arrested for an illegal gun possession. His face lights up when he sees Russell. He hands Russell a piece of paper — it’s a copy of his fall college enrollment printout. He wants to show the judge that he is working towards getting his associate degree. Later, Russell explains that he wants to prove he is turning his life around, he is trying to do better. The Jackson County prosecutor’s office has told Russell they want her client to go to jail for three years.

“And for what?” Russell says, shaking her head. “Because he had a gun? Of course, we don’t want gun violence. But, nobody got hurt, nobody got injured, and they want him to go to prison.”

As Russell once again waits her turn to see the judge, she explains that the system is not setup to believe that people can change.

“The majority of my clients are good people who are trying to do their best everyday. It is frustrating to me because I don’t think the system is created to see their humanity.”

And neither is the prosecutor’s office, says Russell.

“If your job is to send someone to prison, it’s easier to see them as another name, it’s easier to see them as the crime they committed,” she says. “So it is my job to show their humanity,” she says.

Russell says she worries she may be burning out. She wonders if she has another four years, or even another year left in her. She says while she once thought she would be a public defender for life, showing the humanity of client after client is beginning to take an emotional toll.

“Prosecutors used to make fun of me when I started, because I would lead every argument with, ‘My client is a really good guy.’ But over time you just develop compassion fatigue,” she says, sadly. “I want to be able to help them, but at the same time my hands are tied. I can’t do everything I want to do. I think that is why public defenders get burnt out with the system, it is just so much all the time, and there is no end in sight,” she says.

Finally, Russell and her client are called to the front by the judge. They enter a plea of ‘not guilty’ to the gun charge. A court date is set. She speaks with her client briefly but her focus is already shifting to the next client. It’s time to go back to jail.

11:16 a.m.

It has been two and half hours into a typical day for Russell and just watching her work is exhausting.

On the way back to jail, Russell gives a brief breakdown on how the public defense system works. She explains that even though she is overloaded with clients, most people who get arrested do not qualify for a public defender’s assistance.

When a case is charged, police submit that case to the prosecuting attorney at the Jackson County prosecutor’s office. A potential client must qualify under the federal government poverty guidelines. If the defendant makes slightly above the poverty line, they do not qualify for a public defender. The public defender then interviews the defendant charged if they are currently in jail. If the defendant posts $5,000 or more to get out, which translates to $500 cash, they no longer qualify for a public defender.

So most of Russell’s clients are forced to sit in jail and wait for a public defender to take their case. Sometimes, they wait up to two weeks before an attorney will be able to see them, let alone get a scheduled day in court, which can take months.

“Unfortunately, the justice system moves very slow,” Russell says picking up speed with every step. She explains that many times, a client will plead guilty to a lesser charge just so they can be released from jail, where they spend up to 23 hours a day in a cell. However, that has potentially dangerous consequences, Russell says.

“A felony…stays with someone for the rest of their lives,” she explains. “And many people won’t understand the consequences of that until later. It is a dangerous thing people do all the time, plead to something they didn’t do or try to work out something fast so they can get out of jail.”

That’s because for many inmates, and as has been widely reported, jail is far worse than prison.

“That is something I didn’t understand at first,” Russell says. “I have clients who plead guilty just to get back to prison at the DOC (Department of Corrections) because there, they have freedoms. They can work out, go out to the yard, they have a television.”

In jail they just sit in a cell?

“Correct,” she says, looking down, apparently thinking about her 41 clients who are doing just that.

12:08 p.m.

After her jail visit, Russell heads back to her office. She meets with a client in her office, answers emails, returns phone calls, and eats her packed lunch at her desk.

Recently, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver portrayed public defenders as attorneys who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. While she laughs at the comedy routine, Russell uses her brief down time to set the record straight.

“I graduated in the top quarter of my law class, I was an editor for the law journal, and I speak French,” she says, slightly annoyed. “I could have worked in a lot of places. I only wanted to be a public defender. I wanted to be in the courtroom, I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and I wanted to help people,” she says.

She pauses for a moment.

“I think we are put on this earth to do something for others, in whatever way we can,” she says softly.

1:25 p.m.

After lunch Russell arrives in Independence, Missouri, for divisional court, where she is scheduled at 1:30. She parks her car and walks a block to the courthouse. While still walking with a purpose, her walk has slowed down since this morning.

Inside, the elevator is taking forever, so Russell hikes up three flights of stairs to the courtroom.

The room is so full that there is nowhere to sit, so most attorneys stand. In what looks like a giant boys club, Russell’s tall, professional posture, her green dress and long red hair stand out, as she makes her way through the room of suits.

Taking a seat at a table, Russell settles in and, again, waits her turn to be called by a judge. One of her clients, a white man in his 30s, has been arrested for violating a restraining order. He appears before the judge on a large screen, a live video broadcast from the jail. Russell and her client enter in her client’s plea of ‘not guilty.’

The process takes less than three minutes. Russell finishes up ahead of schedule, and is elated to have the unexpected free time. Time to grab a coffee?

“Hopefully I can squeeze in another visit to jail this afternoon,” she says, enthusiastically.

3:16 p.m.

On the way out of the courtroom door, the girlfriend of Russell’s client comes running up. She is young, frantic, and pregnant. Expecting to see her boyfriend in person, she didn’t know he would only be in court on-camera.

She explains to Russell that her boyfriend, Russell’s client, is the financial provider for the family and the father of the baby they are expecting. She bursts into tears. She wants to know when he is coming home.

“Don’t worry, we are going to get through this,” Russell says, rubbing the young woman’s back. She stops crying and begins to listen. Nodding her head, she asks if she can give Russell her phone number. They agree to talk soon.

This sort of thing is a daily occurrence, Russell says. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always have the answers. Or the time.

“I try my best to talk to them,” she says. “But sometimes it is just not possible, because I just have too many cases and I don’t have time to stop. I wish I could do more, but all I can do is be honest and realistic about what people are facing, and do that without killing their hope. I always want to leave them with that, with hope.”

3:27 p.m.

Russell walks to her car and heads back to her office in the city. It is already late afternoon. Tonight she will work well past 5 p.m.  And tomorrow, she’ll do it all over again.

“I have clients that hate my guts, that think I am terrible at my job,” Russell says. “And right or wrong, I can’t please everybody all the time. But I sure do try.”

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