We’re currently in the process of narrowing down finalists for the $1,000 Appelman Law Firm Scholarship, and we thought it would be a great idea to share some of the best essay submissions we’ve received on our blog. As part of the application process, entrants were asked if they would allow their story to be shared on our blog, and if so, how they would like to be attributed. Today’s essay comes from Justin C.
From the perspective of an outside observer, it would be fair to characterize my life as composed of two distinct stages: before and after law school. Before law school, I had little regard for society’s rules. To be sure, I wasn’t a punk — I never hurt anyone, and most of my teachers from K-12 would say I was a genuine pleasure in class. That said, I was a bad kid by almost anyone’s definition: At age 12, I was arrested for possession of marijuana in school; at age 18, I was arrested for possession of an illegal knife; at age 19, I was arrested for throwing a 300+ person party, complete with food and alcohol, at the restaurant where I used to work; and at ages 20 and 23, I was arrested for shoplifting. Now, at age 28, having gone five years without breaking the law, and after graduating law school magna cum laude, I look back on my life and wonder, “What was I thinking?” It’s hard to say exactly, but I do know that what sparked the dramatic change was my close call with jail time.
The punishment I received for most of my crimes was rather typical: fines, community service, and probation. However, one experience in particular stands out. The last time I was in court (for shoplifting groceries) the prosecutor was ready to send me to jail. After all, I had a lengthy criminal record, and it was my second offense for shoplifting. Until that point, I had thought that there was no way any prosecutor was going to send an educated, middle-class white kid to jail. I was dead wrong, and when the prosecutor requested a six month term of incarceration in front of the entire court room, my life flashed before my eyes. I was pale and stricken with terror, and I realized the mistakes I made in the past had finally caught up with me. Fortunately, I had a very persuasive public defender and a sympathetic judge, so I didn’t serve any jail time, but I finally understood that I had to make a change.
After court was finished, my public defender asked me if I would join her for coffee, and I accepted her invitation. I spent the next few hours getting chewed out harder than I had ever been before. She told me I was an idiot, that I was about to throw my life away, and that if she hadn’t stuck her neck out for me, I’d be in jail. But she didn’t just yell at me. Rather than viewing me as a criminal, she saw me as a person who simply needed some guidance. Thus, she gave me her personal phone number, and took me under her wing as a mentor. To be clear, we didn’t have a YMCA/big-sister kind of relationship, but she helped me understand that being a criminal isn’t something to be taken lightly. She encouraged me to think about my future, and how my criminality could affect the lives of the people I love: my mom, my brother, and my future wife. Indeed, my public defender even introduced me to the therapist who helped me understand my criminogenic needs and taught me how to overcome them. Simply put, my public defender changed my life. (And it was because of my experience with her that I decided to pursue law.)
But I didn’t get off with just a stern talking-to. Beyond the realization that I could actually wind up in jail, and what I learned from my public defender, I was given a hefty sentence of community service — 80 hours working for the city park. I arrived for my first day at 6 a.m. in the middle of a severe snow storm, terribly underdressed and unprepared for manual labor. My task for the day was to shovel and salt all of the sidewalks and walkways in the park. After eight hours of backbreaking shoveling, practically freezing, and no lunch break (because everything was closed due to the weather), I finished my first day of community service with the feeling that I was truly being punished. It was a humbling experience. Over the following months, however, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to garbage duty, rather than backbreaking labor, with a man named Tyrone. Tyrone is an excellent human being, but he’s not proud of being a garbage man. When I first met him, he made sure to tell me about the mistakes he made that led him to be a garbage man, and he urged me to consider that if I continue my mistakes, I may end up the same way. I soon understood why he engaged me to change my ways: When people would come by the park or club house and see me hauling garbage, they would look at me with a strange mix of disgust and pity. I will never forget what it feels like to be the garbage man that everyone looks down upon. This was the final nail in the coffin of my criminal behavior.
After narrowly escaping jail, and being transformed through my public defender and community service experience, I realized it was time to make something of my life. Thus, I enrolled at Rutgers Camden School of Law, with the dream of becoming a public defender. After all the second chances I was given, I realized that the only reason I was not in jail, or on the path to being a garbage man, is because someone — my public defender— thought I was worth saving. I hope to return the favor to another troubled youth some day.
During my 1L summer, I worked at the Federal Office of the Public Defender in Camden to see if it was what I truly wanted to do. There, I saw first-hand the injustices of the federal system, and the many unnecessary hardships that criminals must endure: from being overcharged by U.S. Attorneys, to facing draconian sentencing enhancements for trivial acts. To be clear, I am not a fan of criminals, and I understand how they hurt society, but, speaking from experience, I know that retributive punishment is not only unjust, it is also ineffective. Therefore, my goal is to use my law degree to do exactly what my public defender did for me — to give criminals the defense, and guidance, they deserve, so that they may do something meaningful with their lives.
Now, after graduating law school, I am taking the steps necessary to become a federal public defender. In September, I will be clerking for the Honorable Maria Valdez, U.S.M.J, in Chicago, and in 2015, I will be clerking for the Honorable Freda L. Wolfson, U.S.D.J., back in New Jersey. After that, I hope return to the Federal Office of the Public Defender, and perhaps enter private practice some day. In the mean time, however, I am struggling with over $140,000 in law school debt, both private and federal, and I am currently torn between studying for the bar full-time and picking up extra shifts as a waitor in order to make my monthly student loan payments. A scholarship from Appelman would thus be an incredible relief, and allow me to focus on passing the bar.