This fall, Orlando Rodriguez ('11) will be heading to the Bronx to work for the Bronx Defenders criminal practice.
For Rodriguez, it's a dream come true, finding an organization that has the same principles that he does. His office will be at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, just a couple of miles east of the neighborhood where he grew up.
"I am excited about being able to serve the people in my home borough," says Rodriguez, who will start as a staff attorney with Bronx Defenders in early September after he graduates.
Rodriguez's experiences as a young latino in the Bronx during a time of oppressive law enforcement forged his desire to enter indigent defense work. In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Rodriguez recalls a neighborhood where a third of the families were below the poverty level, a situation exacerbated by a poorly funded education system and a lack of jobs.
"I got a clear sense of why people turned to using drugs and selling drugs," he says, as well as other behaviors that led to mass arrests and incarceration. "I watched some of the most talented young men I have ever had the privilege of knowing lose years of their lives in prison, if they had not already lost their lives in the streets."
Rodriguez says that two semesters of experience in CUNY Law's Criminal Defense Clinic gave him essential skills and allowed him to move from theory to practice.
"Here we were confronted by real people in tough circumstances facing serious consequences," he says. "I soon realized the intellectual challenges were the easy part. Learning to cope with the emotional gravity of this work [would] be the greater challenge."
When one of his clinic clients faced misdemeanor charges in Queens Criminal Court, Rodriguez recalls, the prosecution requested $3,500 bail.
"I was nervous and worried for my young client, but I was also prepared as I argued for my client's release," he remembers. "I was overjoyed when the judge agreed to 'ROR' (release him on his own recognizance)."
His client has since enrolled in an alcohol abuse program and things are going well.
Despite the solid clinical experiences he gained at CUNY Law, Rodriguez knows he has many challenges ahead. Although he knows he's up for the fight, he can't shake the feeling that he's bailing water from a sinking ship with a teacup; it's hard for one person to change the system.
The other great challenge is to develop the trust of his clients, who may view him as just another part of the system that led to their arrest.
"If I can impact someone's life by keeping them out of jail, or injecting some humanity into the process, if somewhere along the way I do my part to pull back the veil that hides the ineffectiveness and cruelty of the system, then I think I can say I had a 'successful' career," says Rodriguez.