Over the past six weeks, I have served as an Pro Bono Fellow here at Baker Donelson, but it feels like it has only been a matter of days. My time here has been spent on projects that brought the firm a whopping total of $0.00 and absolutely no billable hours. The clients I meet do not wear designer suits or run successful businesses. Instead, I have primarily met with homeless clients who merely want to relinquish the baggage of citations that prevent them from finding work and shelter. I have been a liaison between a mother of a severely mentally challenged young woman and the Social Security Administration. The matters I have contributed to have been more emotional and heartbreaking than the workload of an average Summer Associate.
The debtor’s prison case in Harpersville, infamously referred to as “judicially sanctioned extortion,” was my introduction to the Pro Bono practice at Baker Donelson. Discussing with attorneys working on the project, I soon realized that this was not an isolated problem. Private probation companies had also been in Tennessee and still exist in other states. These companies prey on low income people who receive minor violations and drain them of all their money until they can no longer pay, at which point, they are jailed. It is well settled law that a court cannot imprison someone for failure to pay a fine if they are unable to pay it. Harpersville ignored the law and penalized indigency.
I shadowed Lisa Borden during my first experience at Turning Point, a court program created to specifically help the homeless population overcome homelessness by examining their legal problems without the fear of incarceration. I listened to a judge speak with a homeless man who had unpaid traffic tickets. He was working diligently to get a new driver’s license and remain sober. He had become involved in a rehab program, not only helping himself, but leading the group on occasion, aiding in other people’s recovery. He had a job and had begun paying rent. The judge looked at him and, recognizing all the man had accomplished, dismissed all but one of his citations because of the promise he showed. The other one will likely be dismissed next time. The gratitude in the room was palpable.
People do not care about prisoners. This became glaringly obvious as I read through a 140 page complaint that detailed the horrors prisoners in the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) face. Stabbings, amputations, suicide attempts, and even death top the list of things one may experience when he or she is incarcerated in Alabama. Because of contracts with medical and mental health providers, the complaint says, ADOC incentivizes poor or nonexistent care for prisoners. Along with being sentenced to time in prison, one can also expect to live with undiagnosed tuberculosis while bunking with scabies. These companies feed on the inhumane treatment of prisoners.
Without pro bono work, none of these people would have representation. The cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners would continue without disruption; homeless people would avoid the court system out of fear that their inability to pay would have harsh consequences, and indigent people would continue to be jailed for the simple act of being poor. I have just completed my first year of law school at Cumberland School of Law, and my time as a Pro Bono Fellow for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz has been the most rewarding and important experience of my life.
I earned my Bachelor’s degree at Huntingdon College which preaches the motto, “Enter to grow in wisdom; go forth to apply that wisdom in service.” This job was just a sampling of the incredible amount of good a lawyer is capable of doing. I have directly taken the wisdom gained during my undergrad experience and 1L year and applied it in service. I am so grateful to Baker Donelson for having a Pro Bono program for law students.