What is a Public Defender?

Anila Ray, Journalist/ Editor

In our communities, every job is important. Especially jobs that protect our rights. Deputy Public Defender of LA (Los Angeles) David Santiago is one of those people. “I’ve been there [as a public defender] almost twenty years,” he says. A public defender is like a lawyer, except they “represent people accused of crimes… who can’t afford to hire an attorney.” Public defenders help everyone, from juveniles to adults accused of felony.

Deputy Public Defender of LA David Santiago

When asked if he liked being a public defender, Mr. Santiago replied, “I do. It gives me a chance to be in court every day and it’s rewarding work when you’re helping people and… I was thinking those were the good parts of it. And I like my co-workers…” Although he likes being a public defender, he also says that, “… Sometimes it can be hard, you know, just… dealing with serious crimes or seeing people who spent a lot of time in prison.” Mr. Santiago says that some of the main difficulties of being a public defender are “… just waiting for things to happen sometimes…  A lot of times preparation takes a lot more time than I would like… What’s wrong about that is people are sometimes just sitting in jail waiting for things to happen. Like someone’s… waiting for a client to be interviewed by a psychologist or something to prepare a report and like especially in this past year… they can’t be interviewed because they’re in coronavirus, quarantine, or something. Or they’re too busy. So a lot of the time, you know, things will get in the way and cause things to get delayed, repeatedly…  Those are really frustrating things. Sometimes you have an irresponsible client who misses court. So if they miss court sometimes the judge will issue a warrant and order them to be arrested if they’re found, so that can be a pain.” Sometimes, his clients will need to be interviewed by a psychologist because they have a history of mental illness. When this happens, he tries to find a treatment for his client instead of having them go to jail.


Getting ready for a day in court involves a lot of preparation. Often, public defenders send people out to get court records and interview statements from police officers and witnesses of the crime. “I have, you know, case files for all my clients so I review the case files…  Sometimes I’ll do… research… reading things about… the crimes themselves.” The case files are file folders that have his notes inside. “Usually it’ll have copies of the arrest reports or a police report that’s been filed… Sometimes it’ll have things like probation reports. The probation officers will recommend… certain punishments, sometimes, for clients…”


As a public defender, Mr. Santiago abides by certain ethics, simple things like not lying to his clients or the judge in court. To him, the most important part of being a public defender is building trust between him and his client. “I do that by showing what work I’ve done… letting them see what progress I’m making on their cases,” he says. “Earning their trust is huge because, if they don’t trust me, they don’t tell me the truth, or they hold back on things that I think are important, and maybe they don’t think are so important…” According to him, having a good relationship with his clients “definitely helps with their cases.”


Mr. Santiago became a public defender because he saw it as an “interesting job,” and because of that, he and other public defenders are now doing good in the world by helping those who can’t afford their own help to defend their rights.










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