How Does a Public Defender Work?

Baltimore’s Jenny Egan works to free young people from jail.

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where Jenny Egan works.

Maryland Department of Juvenile Services

This season on Working, we took a trip to Baltimore to chat with some of the city’s residents about how they make a living there. We’re hoping to learn a little about the ways Baltimore shapes their work—and the ways they’re shaping Baltimore by working.

Listen to this episode of Working with special guest Jenny Egan:

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Baltimore-based juvenile public defender Jenny Egan doesn’t mince words when she explains why she’s committed to her work. “I’ve long believed that criminal justice and the carceral system in the U.S. is the civil rights issue of my age,” she tells us in this episode of Working.

There is, Egan says, rarely such a thing as a perfect defendant. As she puts it: “Injustice isn’t happening to perfect people. Injustice is happening to regular people. Injustice is happening to people who don’t have polish.” Though the young people she works with are, she says, sometimes “bad kids,” they’re also often the ones “who are most insightful, who are the most angry about injustice, who see the world for how it works and have the most amazing things to say about it.”

Accordingly, learning as much as she can about who her clients are is enormously important. “The worst thing that someone has done is not who that person is. That is trebly so when you’re talking about a kid,” she says.

Egan is rarely far from the people she represents—not just because she lives in Baltimore proper, but also because of the way her workplace is set up. As she tells us, most of her clients are locked up directly below her office. It’s a difficult place, one that can make it hard for her to form connections with them, especially at the start. “When you walk into a room with an 11-year-old who is in a prison cell and people are yelling outside, … it’s a terrifying environment,” she says. Though she often begins by apologizing to her young clients for the way they have been treated, she’s aware that it may not be enough. “I’m sure all it does is assuage my guilt, but I do want a child to know that someone believes they shouldn’t be there and that they shouldn’t be treated that way,” she acknowledges.

In a given month, she’ll have four or five “assignment days,” where almost every new case that comes in lands on her desk. But she also continues to work with people she’s represented before if they’re ever arrested again. That means she’s involved with hundreds of clients at any given time, watching them grow up and following them as they pass important milestones.

At times, her responsibilities end up being akin to those of a social worker. She visits kids who’ve been shot, works to get others into after-school programs, and even aims to help them negotiate the complexities of their family lives. Some of the difficulties she meets along the way derive from the material realities of Baltimore itself: “There are cities where there’s poverty and they’re resource-rich, but Baltimore is not resource-rich,” she says. “We don’t have good jobs programs. We don’t have options for kids to do things.”

It’s often her co-workers who help her cope, since she otherwise finds it hard to talk through some of the awful things she witnesses. That sense of camaraderie doesn’t extend to some of the other legal professionals she meets throughout the course of her days, though. “I am very careful about my relationships with prosecutors,” she explains, since she doesn’t want her clients to think that she’s chummy with the people trying to lock them up. Still, she adds, she tries to be “professional and polite,” even as she keeps them at a distance, if only because she still has to negotiate and otherwise communicate with them.

While maintaining the trust of her clients plays a significant role in that professional chilliness, Egan’s caution around prosecutors also derives from her distaste for their complicity in a system that is, as she puts it, “designed to do violence against poor people and people of color.” She knows that some prosecutors think they’re doing the right thing, but she believes that they abet fundamental human rights violations. Speaking slowly and deliberately, she tells us, “I do think that making your living off of putting people in cells is immoral.”

Approaching the job in these terms is difficult, not least of all because she can only do so much about the underlying conditions that shape her clients’ lives. Still, she says, it’s not all bad all the time.

“I have the honor of setting kids free from chains, back into their mothers’ arms,” Egan tells us. “If you’ve never been hugged by someone whose kid you just got out of jail, then you don’t know what fulfillment is.”

You can listen to our full conversation with Egan via the player above. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Egan tells us how she first fell in love with Baltimore. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at