I was delighted to travel to Washington, D.C. last Wednesday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I was asked to put a human face to a problem we run up against at OJPC at our Second Chance Community Legal Clinics: the lack of representation for people facing misdemeanor charges and the lasting impacts on their lives. Not only was I standing up for a cause I have so long fought for and continue to fight for, I was given the opportunity to tell a story that mattered.
Some may say, “Well, we’re just talking about misdemeanors. What’s the big deal? It’s not like people who are convicted of misdemeanors wind up doing hard time in prison on their convictions. ” But misdemeanors matter. The story of Melinda, not her real name, is more than just the story of a client. It is the story of all clients who accepted charges that could have been avoided if only they were given proper representation. Melinda’s story is the story of why misdemeanors matter.
Melinda began suffering from seizures when she was 19, and these seizures would lead to her eventual misdemeanor. Back in the 1990’s, Melinda was taken off her medication for her seizures when she and her doctors wanted to try a new therapy to help treat her.
One summer day, Melinda was cleaning her home when she received a phone call from a church friend of hers. She put on a tape of Barney for her then 3, 4, and 5 year old children, who she raised mostly on her own, to watch. She went upstairs to take the call. During her conversation she suffered a seizure. Luckily, her friend realized what had happened and called the ambulance to come and get Melinda. When the paramedics arrived, they noticed dirty dishes in the sink, knives not put away, cleaning supplies not put away, a smoke alarm without any batteries, and a window without window screens. The paramedics helped Melinda, but they also reported what they saw.
A week later, Melinda learned she was being charged with misdemeanor child endangerment. This charge came as a shock to her. There were innocent explanations as to what happened. She had requested her landlord to fix the smoke alarm and broken window, but her landlord told her he had sold the building and it was no longer his responsibility. Melinda could not afford to repair all of these problems on her limited income. And so she moved screens around her house between the day, when the family spent their time downstairs, and the night, when she would place the screen in the window upstairs. The cleaning supplies were out and knives on the counter because she was in the middle of cleaning her house.
Melinda decided to plead no contest because she did not think she had any other options. She had never met with a defender, and so she did not have the benefit of the assistance of counsel, who could have discussed her available defenses.
Eventually Melinda, after having a few odd jobs to help support her kids, landed a position with a daycare facility. The facility said she was one of their best workers. The children loved her. However, after performing state mandated background checks on all of its employees, the center fired Melinda after learning of her misdemeanor conviction.
To this very day, Melinda continues to be affected by the lack of representation she received at her plea hearing because she is unable to work in a field she loves and earned a good income from. Had Melinda had quality representation, I do not believe she would be in the circumstances she finds herself in today.
That is why it was such a pleasure to go in front of the committee. Not only to tell the story of Melinda, but to share the reasons why misdemeanors need to be taken more seriously. Al and Jess are an inspiration. There were times when I was hopping around D.C. when I thought of them out on their tandem bike pedaling for justice. I was proud to get to pedal justice in the capital on that day. Thank you to all who have supported Al and Jess’s ride and the work of OJPC and CLC.
David Singleton, Executive Director at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center