Finding My Way Home
California Lawyer

Finding My Way Home

November 2009

Benjamin Schiff


In James Baldwin's Another Country, characters either roam the streets of New York or return to them, grasping at something within themselves and their surroundings, desperately groping for identity and a sense of peace. One young soul sells out to a publisher for money, disgusting his wife, who leaves him for a real struggling artist. Another can't get past the color of his skin and commits suicide. And another, a young gay actor, returns to the city after a sojourn abroad, ready to begin a burgeoning career on Broadway.

I spent 17 years in New York City, where I sought a truer sense of myself by pursuing an acting career in "Off Off" Broadway black-box theaters. When I returned to California in 2008, I said to myself, "What a relief to be surrounded by so much sun, air, and space," even though my days were spent in the fluorescent-lit courtrooms of Indio, where I had joined the public defender's office a mere 19 years after I left a similar job in Los Angeles.

"Why'd you decide to become a public defender again?" a law school friend asked.

"For the money," I replied.

"You can't be serious," he quipped, but I certainly was. Hell, from where I was coming from, 60-plus grand a year with the prospect of making 80K in a year and a half was big, big money. New York's theater may sound romantic, but it certainly doesn't pay much.

So there I was, back in the misdemeanor trenches, practicing assembly-line law, learning what a case was worth from DAs who were half my age, looking to reconnect to a profession I thought I'd left for good. I had to relearn search-and-seizure law, remember what it was like to pick a jury, and then get those damn butterflies out of my stomach every time I stepped into a courtroom.

My first trial seemed like it unfolded on a movie set. And everything I did was over the top. But I had no director to stop the action and yell "Cut!" or make me redo a poorly acted scene; the trial just kept going. I tried to resuscitate some idea of what I thought I used to do pretty well 20 years ago, but I wasn't the same person—not by a long shot. My arguments seemed stilted and childish, as confirmed by the jury's quick guilty verdict.

I was finally able to settle down a little and feel like I was doing some meaningful work when I appeared in juvenile court. It's a tiny little room where outsiders aren't allowed, and everyone—judge, DA, probation officer, mental health officer, public defender—seems to work as part of a team for the common purpose of rehabilitating errant youth. For one thing, the charge is not a complaint, it's a petition; the plea is not one of guilt but of admission; and instead of pronouncements of guilt at the end of mini court trials, charges are simply found true.

My clients are kids who are trying to turn themselves around—on their own, or perhaps with the help of intense counseling, often with their parents, from probation officers, teachers, and mental health professionals. For example, I represented a girl who was picked up for trying to sell her body, who had run away from 17 placements but is now doing well at a home for young ex-prostitutes. I had a 15-year-old black kid with an I.Q. of 54 who spent three months in Juvenile Hall on a petty misdemeanor while we tried to find a place for him to get the support he needed.

Every day, it goes on and on: the meth, the coke, the marijuana, testing dirty, breaking windows, putting holes in walls, beating up parents, ripping off stores. But once in the Hall, those gangster-tattooed boys and girls often break down like the babies they are when they see their mommies and daddies. They beg for special visits and, always, another chance.

It breaks your heart to see—and then it makes your heart. I've seen a little of myself in those kids faces—the same urgency that made me flee my first public defender job for the lights of New York, the same angst that fueled the roles I played. They certainly didn't have the same opportunities I did, but if a girl gets her GED instead of taking another hit of meth, then begins to care for her little two-year-old, and finds a decent job instead of hooking on the streets, then my return to this world has been worth it.

In the spirit of Mr. Baldwin, I think that this meandering search of mine has helped me find my way home.

Benjamin Schiff practices law in the Riverside County Public Defender's office in Indio.

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