This is a transcript of the May 8 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: What is your name, and what do you do?
Jenny Egan: I’m Jenny Egan, and I’m a juvenile public defender.
Brogan: What does that entail?
Egan: I represent kids who’ve been charged with a crime who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer of their own. And, you know, they’re kids. I’ve never met a 13-year-old who had enough spare change for a lawyer.
Brogan: How did you get into this line of work? What’s your background?
Egan: Oh, God. I never thought about that.
Brogan: Surely you lived through it, though.
Egan: I did. I went to law school a little bit late, in my late 20s. I was working at the ACLU National Security Project. I had worked on issues of Guantanamo and international human rights, and I saw a ceiling to my career, so I went to law school with a very clear path, thinking very much that I was going to do systemic work on international human rights issues. When I went to law school, I represented a client for the first time, and I’ve long believed that criminal justice and the carceral system in the U.S. is the civil rights issue of my age. I just ... I’d never thought that I could be a public defender. I was worried about the exhaustion and the lack of money, two things that plague me today.
Brogan: So you were right.
Egan: I was right, but also, I had never experienced what it was like to represent someone and stand up next to someone in criminal court, and I realized that direct representation is actually where my skillset lies.
Brogan: So you went from looking at these issues at this kind of macro level to that more immediate, visceral work.
Egan: Yeah. I mean, I definitely do a certain kind of work. I could tell you my critique of ...
Brogan: Tell us.
Egan: For me, in a lot of systemic litigation, people look at what problems are, or their ideas of problems, or they read about problems in articles from academics, and then they try to find people who fit those claims. I think they miss a lot of the real claims, and I also think that they look for perfect people to bring claims. But injustice isn’t happening to perfect people. Injustice is happening to regular people. Injustice is happening to people who don’t have polish.
Brogan: Can you tell us a little about the kinds of young people you represent? What sort of crimes are they accused of?
Egan: I work in Baltimore City. Baltimore City is 60 percent black, but I would say that the kids I represent are 90 to 95 percent black. For crimes, it changes, and it’s changed dramatically over time. There’s swings and there’s trends. A large portion of my cases have always been drugs.
Brogan: Dealing, or just possession?
Egan: Both. Police always charge everybody who has drugs with dealing, right? So almost all drugs, they overcharge. It’s hard to say which I’m handling—most of them are actually possession, but they’re always charged as if they’re possession with intent to distribute. It’ll be like, “You had five baggies, and so that’s not personal use.” But they’ll be one-gram baggies. Anyone who knows people who are purchasing weed knows that nobody’s buying four or five dollars of weed at a clip. Well, except I do work with teenagers, so sometimes they are buying five dollars of weed at a clip.
So drugs is a big one. It used to be a lot more marijuana. Maryland decriminalized possession of minor amounts of weed, and now it’s heroin. Other things to a lesser extent, but mostly possession and dealing of heroin. Then robberies, thefts—a lot of economic-based crimes—and then a lot of misdemeanor minor assaults. I do a lot of work on the school-to-prison nexus, and so I have a lot of school assaults, a lot of school fights, a lot of minor misdemeanor b.s. charges. Trespassing. There’s a huge amount of vacants in Baltimore City, so I get a lot of kids playing in empty houses and getting trespassing charges. But it runs the gamut. I have rapes, murders. The whole nine.
Brogan: How do you get a kid assigned to you in the first place? What’s that process?
Egan: We have a vertical representation model, which means that I have an assignment day. In a month, I’ll have four or five assignment days, and I and whoever else is on assignment that day get every new case that comes in, either a new arraignment or a new emergency arraignment. But once I get a kid who’s had their first arrest, any time that child is in trouble or gets a subsequent arrest, I represent them. I get cases on my assignment days, and I already have a cadre of hundreds and hundreds of clients, so if any of them get into trouble or have an arrest, that new case is also mine.
Brogan: Is that a standard practice in public defender context?
Egan: No. It’s best practice, but it is not widespread.
Brogan: Do you develop relationships over time with the young people you represent?
Egan: Yeah, a lot. I know kids for years, and I also watch them grow up and I’m part of important things that happen in their lives, milestones. The nature of my work also means that I represent kids usually on the worst day of their lives, and sometimes following some of the worst things that they’ve ever experienced. My clients have experienced extreme amounts of trauma. I have met 15-year-olds who have seen way more than the most harried adult—I mean, my kids experience shit that I can’t imagine. It does tend to create a bond when you’re the first person to walk into a cell and listen to a kid after something like that has happened. It certainly forms relationships. Some kids I know for years, well into adulthood.
Brogan: What are those first encounters with someone like, when you’re first meeting a young person at this terrible moment? How do you start to build that connection, or build trust, or reach out?
Egan: It’s difficult first because of the way we treat kids who are accused of a crime. They are shackled, foot and hand. They are put in cells. They are treated with nothing approaching respect. Sometimes for very minor things. The other thing about kids is the way that crime works with kids ... for example, school-based arrests. I will tell you that most kids who get arrested for beating the crap out of someone at school have long been the victims, and are retaliating or defending themselves. It’s this heartbreaking thing when a kid who has been victimized for years and years finally defends themselves and what we do is put them in handcuffs and lock them in a cell. No one should have any illusions about how we treat children. Baby Booking, where I work, is a jail.
Brogan: Wait—that’s the name of the jail?
Egan: I mean, that’s the Baltimore name for the jail. The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, otherwise known as Babies or Baby Booking, is designed just like a correction facility. Small cells, steel platforms for beds, steel sinks. I have seen children as young as eight or nine be put into tiny cells. 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, and a very hard place to establish trust.
First, I try to get to eye level or lower. It’s a place where everyone is trying to intimidate and physically dominate children, so I try to sit on the floor or sit low or be a little bit more casual. It’s a fine line—you want the kid to know you’re a lawyer and you’re a professional and you’re going to fight for them, so you can’t show up in a t-shirt and jeans and try to be a cool advocate, but you also want to be like, “I work for you.” So I sit down and say, “I’m sorry this thing is happening to you, I’m sorry that anyone ever put handcuffs on you, I’m sorry that they’ve put you in a cell. This is wrong. I believe this is wrong. No matter what you did, you shouldn’t be treated this way, and I’m sorry.” I usually start with an apology. I don’t think it establishes trust, and 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 shouldn’t be treated this way.
Then it’s just a matter of reading the kid. There’s no one way to do it. Some kids are eager to talk and eager to trust you. Some kids need a hug. Other kids are real hard and tough and I’m just another white lady in a place that’s trying to lock them up. You just read that situation, and sometimes I establish great trust early on, and sometimes they never like me. But those kids really stick in my craw—
Brogan: The ones that don’t—
Egan: Yeah. At some point, I need a kid to know ... I’m in a special position, right? I’m the only job I can think of in the world that’s not a mandatory reporter.
Brogan: When you say mandatory reporter, you mean you’re not required to …
Egan: Report. I’m an attorney, so everything they tell me is confidential. But unlike a social worker or a teacher or all the other people who say they’ll keep your secrets, I have to. Kids can tell me whatever they did wrong, and they can also disclose abuse to me. They can tell me they want to go home with their pimp—they can tell me all those things—and I am legally bound not to tell anyone else without their permission. Kids are so used to people saying they can trust them and not being able to trust them that it’s very hard to convince anyone. But I do work hard to earn their trust and explain that whatever they tell me, I’m taking to my grave without their permission to tell someone. And if that means I’m going to be held in contempt or whatever else, that’s what’s going to happen.
Brogan: Is it ever difficult to carry those kind of confidences? I mean, I imagine you hear some pretty fucked-up shit.
Egan: Yeah. It’s awful. It’s awful in that there are times when I have to allow things to happen, or that I know that terrible things are happening to my clients. I’ve seen my clients accept charges, go to placement, just take things for people who are actually guilty or for adults in their life. And I could very easily stand up and explain it and prove it wrong, but if my client doesn’t want that to happen, that doesn’t get to happen.
Brogan: You said the word placement earlier. What’s placement?
Egan: Oh, it’s juvie prison. It’s juvie jail.
Brogan: This is a difficult—maybe even nightmarish, in some cases—environment for the kids you’re meeting with. You, I guess, go there all the time, but is it difficult for you to be there?
Egan: The way the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, or Babies, is set up is that the first level is a prison for kids, the second level is where our offices are (as well as the Department of Juvenile Services and the state’s attorneys), and then the third floor is the courthouse. I am at all times thinking about the children who are in prison just below my feet. If I’m in my office or if I’m in court upstairs. It is difficult ... yeah, it’s difficult. Kids I care about. No doubt, I love some of my clients, and I care about all of them. It’s very difficult to be sitting in your office, checking your email, knowing that children you care deeply about are downstairs in jail. It wears on you. It wears on you quite a bit.
Brogan: Have you developed emotional coping strategies to keep working under these conditions?
Egan: Yeah, you have to. I have never had a job where I relied on my coworkers so much. I have intense relationships. The thing is, you see so much messed-up stuff and it’s so awful all the time. If I told my friends ... it ruins a dinner party, right? You can’t be like, “Oh, today I saw a sheriff punch a kid I really care about 18 times, and then his mom told me that if he dies it’s going to be my fault.” You can’t say that at dinner, because everyone’s like, “Oh, womp, womp.” And for me, that’s what happened between 9 and 10. I don’t even want to tell you what happened at lunch.
Brogan: Sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing, it’s just ... that’s my coping strategy.
Egan: No, it’s fine. My coping strategy is to make a lot of jokes about violence and death and trauma.
Brogan: With your coworkers, mostly?
Egan: And my coworkers are a support system like no other. There’s as definitely a vomiting-up of trauma as soon as it happens to get it out and have it be done. Therapy is important, for everyone but also for all public defenders. The thing that makes it harder is vertical representation. Lots of public defenders have these intense interactions or feel really guilty about their clients, but when the clients are adults, they go to prison for long periods of time, and/or they never see them again. I see my kids, right? The 10-year-old I meet who’s the most severely abused kid that I’ve ever experienced, I see him again when he’s 14, and again when he’s 15.
Brogan: I imagine—
Egan: —I have some coping skills, but I don’t think I have enough.
Brogan: That must be a burden, too—seeing people continue to circulate through a system that is hard on them.
Egan: I don’t think it’s just hard on them—I also think it’s designed to do violence against poor people and people of color.
Brogan: So you went from looking at some of these large-level issues to just really seeing how that violence is enacted in process. In practice.
Egan: Yeah. It’s harder. It’s definitely harder. The juvenile justice system is supposed to address the root causes of delinquency. The root causes of what causes a kid to steal or rob or hit someone. There’s no solution on the individual level—I’m so sorry—to systemic poverty and racism. I can’t, for a 15-year-old, fix the fact that he has a shitty school, lead poisoning, and parents who are overburdened. And neither can any system, unless you’re going to actually give people money and education and stable housing, and we don’t do that in the U.S. And we certainly don’t do it in Baltimore. The juvenile justice system is supposed to address these issues, but it doesn’t have any tools to do that. So instead we just punish people.
Brogan: What’s a typical day like for you?
Egan: I have no typical day, but I’ll tell you a lot of the things I do.
Brogan: You’d be surprised by how few professionals we’ve spoken to actually have a typical day.
Egan: I’m usually in court every day. I’m in court by 8:45, 9 a.m. I handle a case or two, and that means I meet new clients, or I interview my current clients, or I have a trial. I have anywhere from 15 to 20 trials a month, at least one trial almost every day. Then I spend all of my lunch break calling people, returning phone calls, checking up on things. I go downstairs to detention and interview my clients who are there long term, waiting for transfer hearings, or who have been stuck there for a minute. I usually go to court in the afternoon. If I don’t, I could go to a meeting about school police policy, or go to a scene to do an investigation.
Brogan: Do you interact much with the police?
Egan: I interact with the police in that I have them on the stand and I read their reports and I watch their body-worn camera footage all day every day.
Brogan: When you say you go to the scenes themselves sometimes, what does that involve, usually?
Egan: It depends, but the best way to cross-examine someone, and the best way to understand a scene, is not to read—you know, I’ve worked in other places, and police reports tend to be two or three pages. In Baltimore, I’m lucky if I get a full paragraph. A full paragraph about a crime that would take away someone’s freedom tends to not be enough to understand what’s going on, and if you actually want you understand what’s going on, you should probably never take the word of a person trying to put someone else in jail. I go to the scene if my kid got arrested, if he was allegedly riding a bike on a sidewalk and then got searched and they found heroin, and the police won’t disclose their covert location. I need to go to the block, I need to look at all the angles, I need to know where the streets are, I need to know where the CCTV cameras are in the sky, I need to ask around and see if there was anyone there when it happened. Sometimes I need to take pictures so I can point to things when someone’s on the stand and have them clarify.
Brogan: So you’re doing investigative work, to some extent.
Egan: Oh, yeah. You have to. All decent criminal defense attorneys are investigating their cases. It’s the only way to litigate them.
Brogan: What other responsibilities consume your days?
Egan: Oh, God. I mean, I’m part criminal defense attorney, but the other half of my job is social work. I make sure kids are enrolled in school. I go to their houses. I’m making sure there’s groceries, I’m trying to write letters to sweet-talk people into giving them scholarships into after-school programs, I’m calling grandma to beg her to let him come stay there and negotiating how much mom will pay out of his social security check for groceries if grandma will let him stay at the house, because that’s the only thing that will keep him from getting locked up—all the things you do with a kid who’s in trouble. Yeah. I’m trying to help families negotiate terrible circumstances, trying to talk my clients into things that would help them without betraying their trust or being just another adult telling them what to do. You know? This year has been really terrible, so I’m visiting kids who have been shot or hurt, seeing if they want to leave the city, and how we could do that.
Brogan: Are you able to help them in those contexts?
Egan: Have you ever tried to talk a 16-year-old into anything?
Brogan: Not since I was 16.
Egan: It’s horrible. There are cities where there’s poverty but they’re resource rich, but Baltimore is not resource rich. We don’t have good jobs programs. We don’t have options for kids to do things. We’re in this house, right? I live in this adorable little row house just off one of the major thoroughfares. I have a client who lives 100 yards from my house, but it’s just over that dividing line, which is Greenmount. The life expectancy on my side of Greenmount is 30 years longer than 100 yards from my house.
The kinds of systemic poverty that my clients live in is not understood by anyone else who stands in the courtroom. Certainly not the prosecutors, not the judges, not anyone. They want kids to work and go to school, and they don’t have enough to eat and they live in the most overcrowded, rundown, unsafe ... I don’t know how to describe it for people who don’t go into these kids’ houses or talk to them about what it’s like. My clients have often never had a bed. Never slept on a bed. Never slept on a mattress. When you’re 14 and you’ve never slept on a mattress, and someone says, “I want you to do 50 hours of community service and earn $1,000 to repay the car you stole,” like, get the fuck out of here. People have no concept of what it’s like, and how exhausting it is, to be poor.
Brogan: Is that something that you can work to change at all, or are you just patching?
Egan: No. It’s just patchwork. There’s no individual solution for systemic poverty. There’s no way I can make your parent not intellectually disabled, and make you rich. To me, that’s the root cause of most problems—systemic poverty and racism. I fight for those things on a macro level, I fight for those things as a resident, I fight for those things in terms of policy. But the court very often wants children as individuals to fix what are systemic problems. That’s the nature of the criminal justice system in general, where you tell people they have to live in an unjust, unfair world that exploits them and grinds them down, and if they do anything wrong, then they have to fix something totally out of their control. I mean, not totally out of their control. I’m not trying to abdicate all personal responsibility. But first of all, I represent kids. How much responsibility can a 16-year-old have?
What is the choice, right? What is the real choice? You don’t eat, or you can make $1,000 this week selling heroin, and you can support your mom, and you can buy your siblings school uniforms, and you can help out people you love. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one ethical choice. When someone says, “You can watch your family suffer in poverty, you can watch people get sick, or you can sell this stash and earn $1,000 this week. You can feed your family, or not.” I find it a horrible system that says, “No, we’re now going to jail you for doing the only thing you can,” because unemployment in Baltimore is huge, especially for young people ages 18 to 30. Finding a job is much more difficult than people know or think, especially for the kids I represent, many of whom can’t read, don’t function, don’t know what it is to have a job. There’s no court program that helps them, there’s no job services readiness program. But they say, “Go get a job.”
Brogan: You represent hundreds of people—
Egan: —At a time.
Brogan: I mean, the caseload is not that large in a given week.
Brogan: Maybe it is. You tell us. You’re not in trial hundreds of times.
Egan: No, I’m not. I don’t have trial, but I have hundreds of active cases.
Brogan: How do you keep track of all those cases?
Egan: Not as well as I would like to. It’s a little bit of triage, it’s a little bit of which crisis is worse, and who is freshest in my mind. That’s the unfortunate truth. If I’ve established enough of a relationship, a kid will call me, and that kid gets more because they’re able or willing to call me or remind me. But for me, every day is unique in that if someone I represent gets arrested the night before, all of a sudden I have to drop everything and go to court for that kid. I might have planned to visit someone, or go to a school hearing, but then I have to drop it because I have to be in court to represent a kid and handle the crisis that happened that day.
Brogan: When you have to drop one thing for another, more urgent thing, are you able to communicate to the other kids that—
Egan: —No, not as much as I would like to, because most kids don’t have phone. Well, most kids I represent don’t have phones, and most parents have numbers that go in and out, if they don’t have minutes. I do my best. Yeah, I try. It’s difficult. I don’t have a work phone, which means the best way to communicate with a 15-year-old would be to Facebook or text them. I need a work phone. But then it’s giving out my personal cell phone number, which I just do. But it gets really exhausting when thousands of people have your cell phone number and call you when they’re in most desperate need of help. My wife might not love that.
Brogan: Do you have hundreds or thousands of contacts in your phone, then?
Egan: Yeah. I just meet thousands of people a year, so a kid and a mom and a brother at some point all get my number. I just triage. It’s about addressing what’s most immediate, and what I can do. You know, I just send out a hundred emails, and what I get back is what I’m tracking down, and then I circle back, and it’s really hard to keep track. I have systems and Excel spreadsheets and all those sorts of things, but also ... when you know a kid is in crisis, they never fully leave your mind, so as soon as I’ve taken care of what Anthony needs, I’ve been worrying about Brian the whole time, so I go to that, and then I’ve got to call Brianna, and on and on and on.
Brogan: I’m getting the sense that the hours must be pretty brutal.
Egan: I try very hard to leave work by 6 p.m. But I tend to work at home in the evenings, and on weekends.
Brogan: So you’re really never off, completely.
Egan: No. We’ve instituted lately something called screen-free Shabbat, so on Fridays at 8 p.m. I lock my phone and my computer away in this attempt to reclaim the weekend. It only lasts till the morning, but that’s fine. That’s a really good break for me—to not be accessible for three or four hours for me on a Friday night is really awesome.
Brogan: Pretty short weekend, though.
Egan: No, it’s fine. It’s really rewarding. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all doom and gloom. I’m a juvenile public defender. Unlike an adult public defender, I have the honor of setting kids free from chains back into their mothers’ arms. And if you’ve never been hugged by someone whose kid you just got out of jail, then you don’t know what fulfillment is. And I work with bad kids. Usually, in my experience, the kids who are bad are the kids who are the most insightful and the most angry about injustice, who see the world for how it works and have the most amazing things to say about it. I work with incredibly smart, cunning, just hilarious, loving kids. I love my job. I love my clients. I love the families I work with. It’s incredibly rewarding—it’s not all just exhausting and sad.
Brogan: It sounds like a lot of your clients come to you because of really bullshit charges. But some of them, presumably, have done pretty terrible stuff. Is it ever difficult to represent someone who has murdered someone, or raped someone, or something like that?
Egan: Not for me. The thing that someone does on the worst day of their life, or the worst thing someone has done, is not who that person is. That is especially so when you’re talking about a kid. If a 15-year-old has shot someone, if you talk to them about the circumstances that led up to that—and I do think there’s this unique privilege, that I speak to someone honestly about the worst thing they ever did, and it’s a secret—and they can tell you a whole story, you see them as a whole person. I don’t know anyone in the world who’s not a criminal. Right? We all talk about criminals. Those were just the people who were charged. If I followed you for two days, I could find enough charges to keep you in jail for a long time. I could. You just don’t know it. You can mischaracterize anything as a crime.
That being said, if we’re talking about someone who’s killed someone, or raped, it’s not who a person is. It’s the worst thing they did. And kids don’t fully understand. People talk about kids as if they’re mini-adults, but we know that kids are not mini-adults. Kids literally cannot control their impulses as well as adults, and don’t have a full understanding. The things that kids do and the things that happen to kids are horrible. Sometimes kids lack empathy. It’s not because they’re little monsters—it’s because their brains have not fully developed empathy, and they don’t have a full understanding of the consequences.
When you tell a 14-year-old someone’s dead, or they would die as a result of something, it doesn’t have the same meaning as it does for a 35-year-old person who has lost a best friend, or lost a mom, and known what that means over a long, extended period of time. Death and violence don’t mean the same thing to a kid who doesn’t have any life experience. So, no, it’s never bothered me, and it’s never been hard for me to look at a kid who has done the worst thing possible and say, “You know, that’s not OK. And also, I forgive you, and it’s going to be OK, and I don’t think you are the thing that you did.” But I think that of adults, too. This idea that someone is a criminal, or not a criminal, or someone is a murderer—that’s not what someone is. That’s something that person did. And it’s horrible, but it doesn’t change that they’re still a person. I strongly believe that all people are worthy of love and kindness. I don’t care what they did.
Brogan: If I understood right, you said earlier that lawyers doing civil rights work shouldn’t just be looking down and cherry-picking, but they should be able to work from the ground up, pushing things through the legal system to create new precedents and the like. Have you been able to do that during any of your work in Baltimore?
Egan: I very much believe in a community lawyering approach, that people should be enmeshed in the communities they purport to represent, and that there are ways to create webs and systems that allow certain cases to become larger systemic challenges. I do that a little bit on school-based arrests, and I focused on school-based arrests for a while in an effort to reduce the problem in Baltimore. School-based arrests were down about, I think, maybe 50 percent. The school system will say it was 75 percent, but there’s no accurate numbers prior to this year so it’s hard to tell. I have tried to establish relationships, to connect plaintiffs with people I know who are doing that systemic work. But it’s really difficult. I can lay out the claims for a lawyer friend of mine, and they’ll be like, “Great. Tell your client to call me.” And I’ll say, “My client is a 13-year-old special education student who’s homeless. They’re not going to call you. That’s not how this is going to work.” So I continue to run into problems with lawyers understanding what kind of work it would take to be on the ground, and what kind of work it takes to establish trust with clients. But I try. I’m trying.
Brogan: One of the stereotypes about public defenders is that you’re not paid very well. You work really hard at a hard job, but the financial rewards are not considerable. Is that accurate?
Egan: No and yes. I make the same amount of money now that I made 10 years ago, before I went to law school. But I was living in New York then and I live in Baltimore now, so the cost of living is significantly different. It depends. Public defenders are paid vastly differently across the country. Starting public defenders in Massachusetts make $40,000 a year. I think that that is abominable. Maryland has a statewide public defender system, so we are state employees, and about 10 or 15 years ago, I think, Maryland evened out the pay of their public defenders with the attorney-general’s office, so with the starting salary of state prosecutors. That is a good way to make sure people earn a living wage, because prosecutors are generally never going hungry.
So we make an okay wage. The starting salary for a public defender in Baltimore is $56,000.
Brogan: Which isn’t great for someone with a law degree, necessarily.
Egan: It isn’t great for someone with a law degree, and $300,000 of debt, but it’s—
Brogan: —Is it worth it?
Egan: Look, I’ve never been wealthy. $56,000 a year is more than the majority of Americans make.
Egan: People can say public defenders make shit money, but they make shit money for lawyers. It’s a totally fine wage, and it’s livable. Yeah, it’s fine. I don’t need to be rich. I was never going to be rich. I’m never going to be rich, OK?
Brogan: What sort of relationships, professional or otherwise, do you have with people in other sectors of the justice system, prosecutors or judges or whoever else?
Egan: One of the real, lived experiences of clients who have lawyers is that their defense counsel and the prosecutor and the judge are all parts of a system that excludes them. People often get the feeling that their defense attorney, when court is not in session, is joking with the prosecutor and that they’re friends and they all hang out, and so there’s no one who’s there for them. As a result, I am very careful about my relationship with prosecutors. But it’s a careful line. I work with these same people every day, and I need to negotiate with them sometimes to get good plea deals, or to explain my client’s situation, or to invoke their understanding, or to convince them that a stop was actually illegal. I have to have good working relationships with them, but I need to make sure they don’t think I’m their friend, and my clients know we’re not friends. But that’s really difficult to understand because lawyers are part of a secret cult society, part of this elitist club, and so it’s very difficult to walk that line.
I try to be professional and polite and to keep a remove. I have never been to lunch with a prosecutor, I would never go to drinks, I would never have them over for dinner. One, because that remove is important for maintaining my clients’ trust, and two, because I do think that making your living off of putting people in cells is immoral.
Egan: I understand why people think it’s OK to do, I understand that people think they’re protecting the public, I understand that they—some prosecutors, not all—think they’re doing the right thing. But at its base, I think that the U.S. prison system is a human rights abuse. I think what we do is unforgivable, and I can’t break bread with someone who puts people in jail for a living. I know that’s harsh. I know people who are prosecutors. I think they’re nice, some of them, and there are people I have good working relationships with. And I’m sure people think that what I do is immoral, and I understand that as well. I can think that it’s not right without having animosity. But I would hope that people think about what they’re doing, and the fact that we incarcerate more people than the rest of the world. That we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population, that we have disenfranchised three full generations of black people—that our current system, our current laws, are an extension of slavery and Jim Crow. I just don’t know how you can participate in that.
That said, I’m a public defender, and I think I am the easy veneer the legal system puts on the outside of an unfair system. I am a cog in that same machine, and my participation might be holding that system up as well. So I don’t know how I break bread with myself, either. It’s true, right? The fact that you get a free attorney is the thing that makes it OK for us to lock up millions of people. The fact that they’re underfunded—it’s not just the salary I get, it’s the caseloads that don’t allow me to actually represent the way that I would.
Egan: Imagine if I had three felony trials a month instead of 16 or 25. What I could do?
Brogan: A lot more.
Egan: Oh, my God. I would be the best, because I would have time. You have to think, I have 16 trials a month—and there’s five days in the week, there’s four weeks in the month, so there’s only 20 court days. And I have 16 trials, and 5 assignment days—I already don’t have any days to do work. I don’t have the time I want to represent people. I don’t care about money, I just wish I had so much more time.
Brogan: What keeps you going in all that?
Egan: I love my job. It’s also fun. I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, and being in trial is like a huge adrenaline rush. It can go on for four or five hours, and I won’t remember any of it. It’s just adrenaline the whole time. I’m very scattered, and I’m always doing 18 things at once, and at trial, I am laser focused on whatever’s happening in front of me, and holding it all together in my mind. I think that criminal defense attorneys are a little bit adrenaline junkies, and that keeps you going. Right? You are definitely seeking the next high, it’s just a different form of the juice. So there’s a little bit of that, and it’s fuel, and it’s good. Also, I work with kids who are great. I get invitations to high school graduations. I get sincere thank-yous and I get “not guilty” verdicts and I get kids out of trouble. I work with people all day, every day, the people of Baltimore, the moms and sons and daughters and dads.
It’s really easy to keep going. Every time I have something really horrible, a kid comes in and gives me a hug, or tells me terrible, stupid 16-year-old joke. It’s awesome.
Brogan: It’s worth it.
Egan: Yeah. It’s totally worth it.
* * *
Brogan: You’re not a Baltimore native, but it seems that you’ve come to know this city quite well.
Egan: I have trials that are about the city, and I interview kids about the city. And I also work in the schools. I love Baltimore. I do love Baltimore.
Brogan: How did you end up here?
Egan: Well, I don’t really know. I’ve lived a lot of places. My wife was finishing her Ph.D., and she does federal education policy. They only do federal education policy in one place, and I lived there for six months, and I said, “No. I’m not going to live in D.C. This is not a place where I can make a life.”
This is a cute story. We came to Baltimore all the time for music shows and art stuff, and I was just always, I was always up here, but I didn’t know the city at all. We went to Artscape one year, which is in the hottest week of the summer. It’s not even that Artscape is that great, it’s that the city was weird in a way that I really liked. We were walking around, and I said, “If you have to stay in D.C., maybe in five years we can move here. This is a city that feels like a place where I could fit.” And my wife was like, “Sure. That’ll be the long-term plan,” and two weeks later, the job I currently have got posted, which is a dream job for me, a juvenile public defender job. I applied and had the job within a month. And I was like, “It’s not five years.” It just felt very kismet that we said we were going to move to Baltimore and then this job I wanted opened up and I got it right away. We moved here.
D.C. was not ... I felt like it wasn’t queer friendly. I just didn’t like D.C. I don’t want to talk trash on other people’s cities, especially because you guys live there.
Brogan: We don’t mind.
Egan: It was a kind of uptight that I couldn’t deal with, and I literally felt like I did in the ’90s in fucking Tangent, Oregon. I felt like a really insolent, punk-rock teen, just standing out. I was like, “I’m a 30-year-old yuppie woman. Why do I feel like such a weirdo?”
Brogan: Has your sense of the city changed since you started doing juvenile justice work here, though?
Egan: Yeah, I am definitely way more connected to the city.
Brogan: Presumably it’s not just a place for cool art shows and stuff anymore.
Egan: No, absolutely not. I mean, the thing I caught that day and every day is that Baltimore doesn’t give a shit about the rest of the world, which I like. Baltimore teens have fashion and music and things that they’re into and they create, and it’s not about exporting it. It’s about doing. And that’s true on every level. I love Baltimore. It’s definitely Baltimore for life.