Thalia Karney

‘I hope I never see you again,’ a public defender’s quiet plea to her clients

You pick the files at random in an arraignment shift. Strewn on the table on the public defender’s desk in the courtroom, they lay in wait for any of the three or four attorneys in the shift to grab one to take to the interview area.

That was how my relationship with Dennis Guevares began, just like all the others I’d represented over more than two decades. 

As I made my way into the dirty interview booth and sat on the stained chair — one that’d been there for probably as long as I’d been practicing law — I braced myself for what new person would come before me. 

I’d looked at the rap sheet and already knew this new client was a bit of an anomaly. A Robb 1 — or a robbery, as it’s known outside our legal world — is an odd first charge for a guy in his 30s. 

Then I saw him. He was of very slight build. A gaunt face. Unkempt hair and dirty clothes. He was unable to keep his head up for most of our brief interview. All I really got from him was, “I’m sick. I’m just sick.” 

It was obvious. This man was an addict in the worst way. He didn’t even want to discuss his case. He only wanted to escape the withdrawal already underway.

We were in for a long road, I instantly knew. 

When I meet a client in the throes of addiction, I need to do whatever it will take to navigate a way to treatment, not jail. But that road is riddled with one hurdle after another. 

First it’s the judge who sets bail at arraignment. Then it’s the DA (or ‘district attorney’ to anyone unfamiliar with Law & Order…). They always want to hurry up and indict so the statutory time is met to keep the person incarcerated. Then, if the client makes bail, there’s the fear they will use again and while free, pick up a new charge. Then the cycle repeats. 

Not everyone can get an alternative to incarceration disposition, especially when the charge –as in Dennis’ case — is classified as a violent felony. Sometimes it’s impossible.

Dennis made bail that evening (his parents were in court and got together enough to post bond). It was just the beginning. 

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

He would go back to the streets, after just a few days, and use again. He would run out of money, and then proceed to boost, buy, use and repeat. 

He was living like this through several more arrests for petit — or petty — larceny all across New York City’s sprawling five boroughs. 

Eventually, he missed court and a warrant was issued. During this months long period, I would text his mom. She would ask if there was anything she could do. She would drive uptown from New Jersey to look for him on the streets. As a mother to a 20 year old son, my heart broke with hers every single day.  

This in between time is the scariest for a family member. The news will be either that your child has been arrested again or that your child — your baby — has died of an overdose. In Dennis’ case, it was luckily the former. Yet, in our system in NYC, all that means is getting thrown back into Riker’s Island. To most that’s as bad as dying.

It was time to get the process going to get him treatment. Yet, with the DIstrict Attorney of New York County, that process can be grueling. Several months of grueling. I knew that was the case here. What I didn’t know was COVID had arrived and everything that once was slow would soon become an exercise in walking through sludge. 

We had to wait months to arrange a proffer — when the defendant meets with the DA’s to discuss their history, the allegations, their addiction and why they need treatment, not jail — for Dennis to meet via Microsoft Teams with the DA’s office. The call was cut short and it necessitated another meeting with an additional DA (the first DA’s boss). Then there was a third meeting with DA1, DA2 and DA chief from the Alternative to Incarceration bureau. After two months, that third meeting did the trick. 

The DA’s office, after careful consideration, not only believed Dennis was eligible for treatment, but they also believed his version of events. They allowed him to plea to grand larceny, a non-violent crime. 

We were delighted. We just had to wait for Dennis to be placed in an in-patient drug rehabilitation center.

It took another few weeks (during all this time, Dennis continued to languish at Riker’s Island in the midst of the COVID pandemic) until we saw the promised light at the end of the tunnel. On an afternoon in April, Dennis met with the judge who accepted his plea to grand larceny. He was then released to a program facility where he resides today.

Dennis is doing amazingly well. In fact, he is a star at his program and is afforded time off of his in-patient status due to his accomplishments. When this is all over — when Dennis is finished with his obligations to the court and the program — the court will dismiss all the charges against him, and he will have a clean record and a real second chance. 

My favorite thing I get to say at the conclusion of that final court date is, ‘I hope I never see you again.’

Thalia Karny has been a public defender in New York City for two decades. Her full bio is here.

Thalia Karny has been a public defender in New York City for two decades. Her full bio is here.

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