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Navigating Chaos: Triumphs and Trials of a Public Defender

Jan 29, 2024
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Matt Skinner is a public defender with passion. Criminal defense is high-stakes, sometimes chaotic work that can be extremely difficult, but Matt navigates the courts, clients, and his career with genuine sincerity and excitement. As a lawyer for those who are accused of felonies but cannot afford a lawyer, his love for underdogs fuels his advocacy. It was a profound experience in high school, however, that set him on this path. On a high school trip to the local jail, he ran into two of his friends--behind bars. Matt is a 2018 graduate of Seton Hall Law School.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Matt Skinner, a 2018 graduate of Seton Hall Law School and an assistant deputy public defender in a county of about 500,000 people. Between undergrad and law school, you were a stockbroker in Florida. How did that work translate to the high stakes of defending people accused of crimes?

Matt Skinner:

They're actually very related in a certain way. And I would say that the most important part of my job, honestly, is to make my clients feel heard and feel like their voice and how they feel about the situation is important. When I worked at Fidelity, even though my label was as a stockbroker, to be fair I was mostly just a customer service representative. So people calling in when they're upset, to be frank.

I would place orders for them a lot of times, but most of the time it could be as simple as, a client who's in their 80s who can't figure out how to reset their password. This whole skillset of speaking to people you've never met before with a ton of problems that they bring to you right on the spot. You have to think on your feet while trying to soothe them and keep them calm throughout the process. At the time, I really couldn't stand that job because it was really difficult. would say the same thing translates as a public defender, money for everyone, understandably, is high stakes. Criminal law is very high stakes, as you noted. And I've learned that in my job, on both of my jobs, that people who are angry, it's a lot of time just because they're frustrated or don't understand what's going on.

Katya Valasek:

So you spent time as a stockbroker after undergrad, but was law school always a plan?

Matt Skinner:

I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. It started when I was in high school. I went to a pretty prestigious private school in Jacksonville, Florida. I was fortunate to be able to go there because I was an athlete and they assisted me in going there. I was kind of the kid across the railroad tracks a little bit. I was fortunate also to be chosen for a program called Youth Leadership Jacksonville. And that’s where they took two candidates from each of the top high schools in the area to have us see different issues in the community, whether through the arts, the legal system, humanities, so on and so forth. And the one that stood out to me specifically was we went to the jail. And I think it was pretty funny. I think it was supposed to be kind of like a scared straight routine, where they take all of us uptight high school top students and put us in a very uncomfortable situation. Because to be fair, if you've never been into a county jail, it can get pretty uncomfortable.

And so, they had us in the holding area. And I remember the jail guard giving us this pretty, I would say, energetic speech is the best way of putting it about what the new guys run into when you're in the county jail. And so the holding cell there, which was, it's not like that here, it was like a big clear glass window, like plexiglass. So they obviously couldn't break through it. So as the guys who were in there decided they all wanted to walk up to the window and yell at us and try to scare us and stuff. And in the midst of that, I look and I see two of my friends from middle school were in the holding cell. And so as while all my peers who are there are all kind of scared and worked up, they're yelling at me saying, “Matt, hey, what's up, man?” I'm kind of like, “guys, I'm doing something here.” But I just remember how that had such a profound impact on me. It had a huge impact on me.

And I never thought that something like that would, I mean, just the mere fact of seeing them in the jail garb behind that window and not being able to interact with me, it really upset me. And so then after that program, I remember specifically one of the counselors had said, “what are you gonna do with this opportunity to make things better?” And they weren't my only friends who had gone through the legal system and kind of, struggled you know in that regard because of representation, to be honest. And so later on in life, when this became my sole interest in law, I've always kind of drawn back on that experience as well, which really influenced my thoughts on helping people out, especially my friends if I could.

Katya Valasek:

Yeah, what a powerful experience to have early on to help set your direction.

Matt Skinner:

It was very powerful. I think it surprised me how much it upset me. Like when I got home, I cried about it, which is not a surprise to a lot of people who know me. I'm a pretty emotional person. At first it seemed kind of humorous, but then when I thought about it more, it more troubled me and influenced my route now.

Katya Valasek:

So let's talk about being a public defender. Basically, you're a lawyer for people who face felony charges but cannot afford a lawyer. As our listeners may have heard in prior episodes, how well-funded an office is can make a difference in not only justice for the individuals but also your lifestyle as a lawyer. So, what's your office like?

Matt Skinner:

So I'm very fortunate. This is my second stint with the Office of the Public Defender in New Jersey. I originally started down in Cumberland County. Cumberland County was a lot smaller in terms of the office size than where I work now. I would say in Cumberland, there was probably about, give or take, 10 other adult criminal attorneys. Now I probably have about closer to 20 other adult criminal attorneys that are in my office. The best part about it that I could say with the environment itself is that it does not feel like a law firm. I've been in other offices where sometimes it can feel that way.

As you could imagine, because of the proximity to New York City, we get a lot of great talent as well. I have so many peers that I can learn from in my office, which makes it amazing. But sometimes it can become overly competitive and kind of lose the purpose, I would say, a little bit. I don't ever have that issue in my office. We're very well-funded. So again, it attracts a lot of great talent. But also to everyone that I work with, they believe in the cause, which is a huge part of it. They all take it very seriously. It's just, it's a difficult job. So we have a lot of movement, but we have a ton of support.

There are times where they will send us down to the trial school down in Georgia for public defenders specifically. So they always put us in a great position to succeed. We have great investigators, we have great staff. So I'm very fortunate. And like I said, we all are, it feels like a team. And I think that's something I've always been a part of. So I really appreciate being a part of a team like that.

Katya Valasek:

What does the work you do look like? How often are you getting new cases that you're taking on?

Matt Skinner:

I get assigned cases sometimes hourly. So I kind of made the joke that in my courtroom, I'm kind of the dumping ground. And I don't think it's because of anything I do wrong. It's probably because I get a lot of stuff resolved. I would say at the time being, I'm closer to probably 80 cases right now, but I think when I started, it was a little over 100. And so as they roll in, depending how that works, it'll go up, fluctuate between, I would say 80 to 100, 110, something like that.

Katya Valasek:

How do you balance your personal life amidst all of this work that you're doing?

Matt Skinner:

To be honest, I think that's one of the best parts of this job. We are very busy, we have a lot of cases, but fortunately, I'm in an office where my boss gives us a lot of autonomy. So I don't have someone looking over my shoulder, micromanaging what I'm doing, because they trust us. And so for me, I was like this in law school as well, is that I don't make myself look busy. If I don't have something that's pressing, I take the time that I need because – I tell this to clerks now because an attorney told me when I was clerking in criminal, which is, when you get to Friday evening, your case is on Monday, they're gonna be there on Monday. So every once in a while, you definitely have to take a break or you're gonna get burned out for sure, especially in this part of law. Criminal defense, especially being a public defender. You know, I, I carry a lot of baggage, my own baggage around with me, as well as my clients’, and so it's very important for me where, by 6:00, 6:30, unless I have a pressing brief that I need to write, I'm usually kind of tuning out and shutting off around that time. And that's just for self-care.

Katya Valasek:

Have you ever felt like your caseload was such that you were worried about it impacting your work?

Matt Skinner:

Yeah, absolutely. I don't know if my bosses are gonna be listening to this from Cumberland County. But why I left the first time was, I had gone from being the head of the juvenile division where I had 120 cases, and I'm pretty sure when I left there, I got them down to under 50. I had really done a ton of work to take care of those cases. And then when I got moved to adult, my caseload at that time was 375 cases. And it was during COVID and it was in Cumberland County where they filed detention motions on every client, whether it's a shoplifting all the way up to the most serious charges. So I would have hundreds of clients who were detained. They were blowing up my phone all day.

And the worst part about it is that there's really nothing you can do. You try to commiserate with them up to a certain point, but when the dockets aren't moving because we can't try any cases and there's no in-person, took a huge toll on me. I was living alone in an apartment in South Jersey, which I went to school in North Jersey, so I didn't even really have a support system at that time. So I was really struggling. And so that's one of the reasons why I had to move back to Florida to be close to family, to kind of recover. And I'm a better attorney for it because I learned my limitations, but that was a hard time for sure.

Katya Valasek:

How do you communicate those limitations now professionally so that you don't feel that overload anymore?

Matt Skinner:

Leaning on my support system. I'm very fortunate now where I have a really great support system with my fiance. She's also an attorney. So that makes it a little bit easier because we can commiserate about the same things. But ultimately, again, I have to say my office is really great in understanding these things. I was having some personal issues when I was on the eve of trial last year in August with my father. He was having some pretty serious health issues that was really affecting me. I was trying not to have it affect my work, but it was just always on my mind. And I just let him know about it. I was like, “Hey, look, this might be weird, but I want to tell you about this.” He goes, “no, I'm really glad you told us, you know, whatever time you need that you need to take to handle that, those things, we got your back.” I would say that my judge as well, that I'm in front of now, she's the same way that no one's ever given me an issue about that.

I think that tends to be a stigma with, I think, working as a public defender, that it's almost like a guarantee your mental state's going to be broken at some point, which is fair. And I think it's because of the pressure and the stakes. But it doesn't have to be because you feel overworked all the time. I think you should feel stressed because it means you're doing a good job, but not have it control you. If you have personal stuff you need to take care of. They know that, that that's what's most important because then you're not gonna be effective in the courtroom if you're not good yourself.

Katya Valasek:

I think a lot of people have the perception that public defenders are practicing amidst a lot of chaos. Does that ring true for you?

Matt Skinner:

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Criminal court is chaos. It's just a fact. Like I said, I learned something new every day, which is what makes it fun. It's weird to say that it is fun to me, though. I actually really love it. I love being in the courtroom. I love talking to everybody: other defense counsels, the prosecutors, the court officers, the court staff. But we all are in agreement that every day is chaos. That you never know what a client's going to do, what they're going to say. And now that you bring that up, I have to say that the COVID change that has caused in the criminal court system is really bad. I think it's a really bad thing because you have clients where it's great for them to a certain extent if they have to work and things like that, I understand. So it gives them the ability to appear without having to really give up a work day sometimes, right? But they turn on their camera and Zoom court and they're not wearing a shirt or they're going to the… there's just, I honestly, I can't go into half of this stuff that I've seen. And then it's in the middle of the courtroom and I’m just sit in there like white knuckling, like, oh my goodness, this is madness. It's crazy.

Katya Valasek:

There are specific choices people make with their names sometimes and yeah.

Matt Skinner:

Oh yeah. 100. Yeah, when they first come in. Yeah, absolutely.

Katya Valasek:

I wanna dig a little deeper now into your practice and I wanna start with an example. So I will let you choose the path we go down by asking you what is a common crime or a crime pattern that you're seeing a lot of these days?

Matt Skinner:

The funny one that has come up more recently that I didn't even know was a thing was the theft of catalytic converters from cars, those theft.

Katya Valasek:

Stop it! That just happened in my development this week. My neighbor's car, they targeted all the Volkswagens in my development.

Matt Skinner:

Yeah, absolutely. And then they do a swift raid and then they scoop them all up and then you go out to your car and they're not working and no one has any idea why. Yeah, absolutely.

Katya Valasek:

Follow-up question. Is it true that the people who organize these stings like to use 16 and 17-year olds so they're not charged as adults when they're caught?

Matt Skinner:

Absolutely. I would say that's true about a lot of crimes in general. Gang related activities is kind of a blanket statement, but like the rings. So, like I said, that's definitely one. Car thefts are really on the rise. So the AG's office has really been cracking down on those. I get a lot of young kids out of those cases. Not necessarily always 16 or 17, but 18 range as well for that because the other ones will go to juvenile. My position always was that you might as well give me probation, because that's what they're gonna get, regardless of what they did. And it's because like you said, adults tend to know that the juveniles are gonna be taken a little bit easier on, so they recruit them.

Katya Valasek:

I feel like you're describing what is happening in my local county. Okay, so I want to take this example. So you get someone who took a catalytic converter, theft, whatever the charges, what is the first thing you do?

Matt Skinner:

The way the process will work for them will be they'll first either get a summons complaint or a warrant complaint. If it's a warrant, that means that they get arrested. So then they'll have an attorney from my office who will represent them at their detention hearing. There's no more bail in New Jersey. So it's basically just making an argument based off these two scores that they have. The first one is their likelihood they're going to show up to court. The second one is their likelihood to commit another crime.

Those scores are one to six on each scale, six being the highest, one being the lowest. You always want someone in the one-one range if you can get lucky. The judge will then decide whether to release them on conditions or detain them. So once that happens, then I'll get assigned the case after that hearing is done. And then once I'm assigned to it, I'll get noticed that they were indicted and we'll have an arraignment. One with for like a catalytic converter or something as simple as a shoplifting, depending on their age and their history, it could be as simple as where they go to what's called pre-indictment court, called PIC, where the prosecutor will just say, look, it's a kid, it's the first time he's in trouble, we'll give him PTI.

So then we'll do what's called an accusation hearing instead of an arraignment. So an accusation is just simply at PIC, they told the defendant, hey man, we'll give you a PTI, pre-trial intervention. So it's like kind of like your, I like to say get out of jail free card, it's probably a bad way of putting it, but it's a way to go through a program. If as long as you do the program, usually for up to a year, it's usually a year, could be as low as six months, could be as high as three years. As long as you do everything they say, you come back after that time period and they dismiss the charges because they basically delay prosecuting it.

So then you'll bring them in, do the accusation where they say, I just agree that this is what the charge is so we can go forward with the plea deal or the PTI. So then if it's someone who's indicted, then I just get noticed that they're indicted, they'll come in for their arraignment. And then the judge will just say, “do you have discovery?” Yes or no, I'll tell them yes, no. And then the state will say, we'll send it over or we already have it. And then I'll set a meeting with my client. And hopefully, they'll follow up with me to come meet with me prior to their next status conference. And then usually around that time, because if I'm being honest, most cases resolve fairly quickly. I don't know what the stat is, but I would venture to say easily over 90% of cases resolve through pleas. There are certain defendants, they feel like that that's all we really do is just get them to plead guilty to things, but it's always contingent upon the evidence and what is important to them.

So based on what their values are and what's most important, like if they can't have something on their record because of their job, then I gotta go negotiate with the prosecutor and say, “look, I understand that there's evidence here, but this is what's important to them. Can we make it work?” And if it's a no, then we try work arounds. Okay, so maybe we file this motion and kind of press them a little bit. So it's usually trying to figure out the strategy for the more difficult cases.

Katya Valasek:

So when you plea, what is the work actually like?

Matt Skinner:

We have pretty streamlined plea forms at this point. The most important thing is to relay the offer to the client, make them understand the ins and outs of it and the consequences of it. That's all on the plea form. Take them through all the questions. So most importantly, them understanding the rights that they're waiving by pleading guilty, which would be the right to a trial by jury, the right to confront the witnesses against you, so on and so forth. And then it goes through kind of the court costs and other things that could be included with the plea deal, which would be: If you go on probation, they want you to do mental health counseling or they'll want you to do drug counseling if you have a drug problem, things like that. And then so once you get them to that point, you have them sign it, they understand everything. And then you have to go through the actual plea with the judge. So that's just in court. It's called voir dire. It's that version of it. So voir dire is not just with jurors. You can also do it with your clients where you just leading question them, say, you understand you're giving up these rights, correct?

I'm very fortunate. My judge actually, she has a very great system where she does all of that herself. She's a machine. So I don't really have to do that much. I just have to take them through a factual allocution. So I think for those in law school, they probably know that for criminal law, there's elements to every crime. And so when you allocute, which means give a factual basis, because the judge has to confirm that what they're pleading to, they're actually guilty of it to satisfy those elements. So you just say, On this day, you were in this area, correct? That establishes jurisdiction. And you did this, correct?” So I'll think of one. I think we could do like theft. So ,you took Katya's catalytic converter knowingly, correct? Yes. And you did so to deprive her of that catalytic converter, correct? Yes. And you had no intention of giving that back, correct? Yes. So I try to make it easy.

So that's why I lead them very heavily. So there's no... I don't need them to describe details. There, you can run into some trouble because they can contradict themselves and almost negate the entire plea.

Katya Valasek:

You just said, my judge, what do you mean by that?

Matt Skinner:

As a public defender, we're assigned per county. I'm in Passaic County. And they like to put us before a certain criminal judge to be in at all times. When a client gets arrested, if they don't have a private attorney, they fill out a form that's called a 5A. I actually don't know what that stands for, but it's where they're interviewed by the criminal division to see if they qualify for a public defender. Now this is kind of controversial to some people, but my opinion is that I think everyone should be eligible for a public defender because I'm middle class, my parents were middle class. They're not poor by any means, but they don't have a ton of money. If I got in trouble or they got in trouble and they didn't qualify, you're gonna end up needing one after you pay for a private attorney sometimes. For some things that could be very simple that we could handle because we have great relationships with prosecutors. So, sorry, I got away from it a little bit, but we're assigned per courtroom. Again, so when they come in, the client fills out the 5A, they say this person is eligible, who is this assigned to? Oh, he's in front of this judge. Matt's there, we're gonna give it to Matt.

Katya Valasek:

We like to say that this podcast helps people learn about what they don't see on television. But what you do is on television. What do you think pop culture gets wrong about what public defenders do?

Matt Skinner:

So there's a couple things, there's a couple easy answers to that. One is that public defenders are these meek and mild, incapable attorneys who don't know- who are overworked and burned out all the time. Like I said, I understand in different parts of the country that is the case and it's not their fault. I'm from the South and I know that they work on really low salaries and they do a great job and they have hundreds of cases. That's definitely not always the case.

The second thing I would say is that we're these, I guess, sinister attorneys who are trying to get criminals off of crimes, right? It's not my job to prove that my client was innocent. It's to ensure that they get a fair and impartial trial or proceeding, or that they're treated fairly by the system, that all their rights are respected, and to make sure that they're not violated.

The last thing I would say, which I always make this very clear to people, is that when you watch a show, whether you watch CSI or The West Wing or you can name any of them, you see what happens. There's a camera that shows at the end, like, “Oh, he actually did kill that person. Or he did stab so and so.” We don't have that luxury. So you're very much trying to piece things together where, you know, what some people like to say is that you typically find the truth is somewhere in the middle, whatever that means, right?

And so we don't have the luxury of knowing. Unless the evidence is there, or there's a video, it's kind of making these judgment calls of, well, I don't necessarily agree with this one. So then you kind of have to push it further. But that's the simple way of putting it is that unfortunately, we don't really know the truth. We're always in pursuit of the truth. But we, unfortunately don't have some glimpse into the client's mind of what they saw and what actually happened. And it obviously can make things difficult.

Katya Valasek:

Do you think that those false perceptions impact both the attorneys who are starting out as new public defenders and the people that they're working on behalf of?

Matt Skinner:

Yeah, absolutely. I would say there's a classic moniker that we are given by a lot of clients who've been through the system if they're older about us being called, “public pretenders.” Because again, that's the other perception is we just work because we are state employees that we work for the state. And therefore, we're actually there doing their dirty work, getting them to take pleas, especially when you're young. Because truth is, to this day, I still don't know half of probably what I need to know for every situation.

So if you kind of balk or kind of go, I don't know, I need to find that out, they can lose trust very quickly. I can remember I texted a client the other day and I said, “hey, can you show up on this day or something?” He goes, “Who is this?” “It's your attorney.” And he goes, “Attorney? I thought you were a public defender.” I said, “Yeah, we're attorneys too. Don't worry about it. It's fine.” So like I said, there are some people who don't even think that we're attorneys. I think they think we're social workers sometimes or something like that, which can make things difficult. It's hard because the difference being when I worked in juvenile is that my clients were actually children. So I had to stay on top of them. They don't always have parents to be able to help them out in situations.

Sometimes I feel like I'm an adult babysitter. So, that's the hardest part of it, especially being a public defender when you have so many, it's kind of like herding cats, trying to get everyone in at the same time to show up for their court cases. But again, sometimes that breakdown in trust because of those things on how people perceive us can definitely affect how they perceive our judgment, everything.

Katya Valasek:

Do you often also have to build trust with family for clients if they have family that are involved?

Matt Skinner:

100%. And I think it's really important to do that if they have family who are involved, because for me, I want everyone to trust me. It's very typical to have clients, especially ones who are in jail, to have someone in their ear. We call them “jailhouse lawyers” where they think they know better, which I always joke. If they knew better, they probably wouldn't be in jail with you. But having family on your side is really, really important. And so more recently, to give an example of why it's so important is that I had a client who was in for 19 months on a gun charge. So gun charges are very serious in New Jersey. So just to throw that out there, I'm from Florida, so it's a lot different. It's very different.

Understandably, he was very upset about how the process was going. I mean, his case had been kicked around for a long time, we'll put it that way. Not necessarily the fault of anybody. Sometimes it happens in the system. So when we were gearing up for trial to pick a jury, again, understandably, his attitude in court was not great. He was kind of making a mockery of the process, not respecting the judge. All that comes off when you go to trial, jurors see everything, and I'm very cognizant of that. And so I had to have a sit-down moment with his mother and his girlfriend to kind of give them the talk of, look, we're all on the same team here. We all want the same thing. I'm not here to make it worse. I have your back just like your mom and your girlfriend. We need to be a unit together. So your mom's gotta bring you your suit for trial. So she's part of the team. Like we all are part of a team. And as soon as we did that, he was totally fine. Like he totally calmed down. It totally put him at ease because his mother trusted me so he could also further trust me.

And so, like I said, anyone whose support system is involved, which... it's great when they are. It's not always good for me, but again, it's important for clients to feel supported in general. So I'm always gonna loop them in. I'm always gonna be in contact with family to make everyone feel heard and put, assuage everyone's fears. Cause everyone, you know, more than one person is affected by someone being in jail or being put in prison.

Katya Valasek:

You had a dream of becoming a public defender for a long time. Is it as satisfying as you thought it would be?

Matt Skinner:

Yeah, honestly, it's more, which is it really surprised me. I remember when I was clerking in criminal, there was a time I used to watch the public defenders who were in front of my judge, where I was really wondering if I was going to be able to do the job. This seems really hard. You have to go in every day and argue with people, create a stir if that's what's necessary on behalf of your client. You have to deal with unruly clients do all these things. So I was really concerned about that. But then the first day I walked in in Cumberland County, I was assigned to handling detention hearings that you know, they probably gave me 15 files for that day to do them all in one day. And it was just a moment of like, “well, here we are, we just got to make it work.” And then by the end of the day, I was like, man, I was so fired up.

It just, I loved it. I still love it. It's still something that I wake up every day loving what I do. I love talking to my clients. I love being involved with the process and frankly, standing up for people. There's no secret that part of what made me want to be a public defender is kind of sticking it to the man a little bit. I've always kind of been a champion of the underdog. I mean, the way I would have described myself growing up was that I like to... I wasn't a bully. I like to bully the bullies. And sometimes that's what's necessary for our clients is that even though the state, in their mind, they have the best interests of everyone at hand. That's not always the case for my clients. And I just always believe that everyone deserves to have someone on their side.

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