Chicago Lawyer -

‘Tell my grandma that I’m OK’: Volunteers at First Defense Legal Aid meet with people just after they’re arrested

August 01, 2017
By Emily Donovan
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Until recently, less than 1 percent of people arrested in the Windy City saw a lawyer while in police custody, according to Chicago Police Department records.

Then, on March 14, Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans signed an administrative order that allows arrestees to get legal counsel as soon as they call to request help from the police station.

During regular working hours, that could be a lawyer from the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Or for the remaining 24 hours — as has been the case for the past 22 years — that could be a volunteer from First Defense Legal Aid.

First Defense Legal Aid sends pro bono attorneys to the police station lockup facilities to talk arrestees through what’s going to happen at their bond hearings and their right to remain silent unless their lawyers are present. The nonprofit organization fills a gap between when a person gets arrested and when their public defender or private counsel steps in.

Percival C. Olsen, a first-year associate in corporate law at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, heard about First Defense Legal Aid through another associate at the firm and joined its volunteer list in October. He’s since helped somewhere between 12 and 20 people who had been arrested in Chicago over 12 volunteer shifts.

For four hours at a time, he waits on call, ready to rush to one of Chicago’s 22 police stations at a moment’s notice.

He’ll get a call (or sometimes two calls in one shift) from the First Defense Legal Aid call center, who will patch him through, usually to a concerned friend or family member saying someone has been arrested. Olsen then calls the police department, who — assuming the arrestee has been processed through the system by then — tells him exactly where his potential client is.

Olsen hops in his car and introduces himself to the desk sergeant who then takes his information to the arrestee. He said that, while sometimes surprised to hear they now have legal counsel, almost all arrestees then say, “Oh yes, of course I want to see my lawyer. That’s phenomenal.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

CL: What made you get involved?

Olsen: I wanted to go out there and get experiences that would kind of expand on the day-to-day work I was doing in the office. I don’t do a lot of work with the police. I do talk to a lot of people, but we mostly represent corporate entities. What seemed cool about First Defense Legal Aid was it kind of gave me an opportunity to interact with people I wouldn’t see everyday.

When you’re new to a firm, you don’t always get the most high-level things or even a lot of work. By the nature of my job, a lot of the work I do comes and goes in waves. If there’s a slow period, it’s nice to have some pro bono work to fill my time with and get some good experience.

CL: What was your first impression of First Defense Legal Aid’s work?

Olsen: They started off their training session with a presentation of statistics of people who are arrested in Chicago. It was kind of shocking to see the numbers of it all. The vast majority of people do not get counseled before their bond hearing. The stark difference of what I expected going in and the actual reality of the situation stuck with me and I thought I have to help out in any way I can.

It means a lot to the justice system in general. It’s an adversarial system. Everybody needs an attorney, and that’s the only way it works.

CL: What do clients say when they meet you?

Olsen: They’re at their lowest moment at that point when they’re in jail. They feel alone, and they feel scared and like the world has left them there.

Everyone I’ve seen has just lit up when I walk into the room. Even though I don’t come in with a legal defense strategy or anything like that for their cases, just knowing that somebody’s there and making sure that the process of their arrest and the process of them being in custody until their bond hearing is correct, that gives them a lot of joy.

Every time, they’re just grateful to have someone to talk to, to tell them that their family knows where they are, that I’m going to tell their family they’re OK, that they’re eating, they’re getting water, they’re going to sleep soon. That’s what I’ve found they value the most.

It’s not what you would expect going into those situations. When you watch TV shows, you’d think that people would be like, “Oh, I’m innocent by the way, and get me out of here immediately.” But most people are just like, “Tell my grandma that I’m OK and she doesn’t need to be worried.”

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