Disclaimer: This essay was written by our Summer 2022 Aggie Ring Scholarship recipient Emma Burford. Opinions are not reflective of The Greening Law Group.

Since taking government classes in high school I have always been in awe of how our constitution, legal system, and structure of government as a whole, created over 200 years ago, has stood strong through the ages. I think it’s extremely important, with such high stakes, that our criminal justice/legal system be a fair and just process. My father does criminal defense for indigent defendants through appointments from the local district court as part of his law practice, and he has described cases where the rights provided by the U.S. Constitution have been ignored or compromised. One case I remember that my father was involved in recently was a case in which he defended a homeless person charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among other things. The man had suffered since childhood with mental illness and came from a very abusive home. Although my father was able to have a psychologist evaluate his client and determine he suffered significant mental illness, he was deemed by the State of Texas to be competent to stand trial. Ultimately he was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison, although he was subject, due to prior convictions, to essentially life in prison.

My father has noted that many of his court appointed clients suffer from some degree of a mental health disability, usually in conjunction with a rough upbringing and drug or alcohol abuse. I believe that the system is not designed or prepared to address those issues, and that it would be better for our country and society in general if such people could instead receive mental health care. In many cases it is expensive to sentence a mentally ill person to prison, in comparison to getting them needed health care that might help them stay out of prison. While it may seem easier to put such individuals in prison than taking the time to treat the underlying issues of mental illness, I believe it is more beneficial in the long run to provide assistance that might help them avoid prison altogether. When such individuals are eventually released from prison it seems likely to me that the same issues will likely continue and even be exacerbated. As a future educator and Speech Pathologist I hope I am able to use this knowledge to do my part in ending this cycle. By using the knowledge and skill I have gained through Mental Health Certification Courses and various professional development workshops, I hope I am able to identify children and young adults that may be suffering from some form of mental illness and help direct them to resources that will provide care and treatment.

In addition, after years of asking my father questions about his cases and his perspective on the legal system as a whole, I have come to the conclusion that it seems to be a David against Goliath battle – Goliath being the state and David being the lawyers that fight against them. This is another issue I have found myself passionate about and shedding light on to others when I can. The state has far more resources, such as funds for bringing people to stand, their large staff, etc. setting up those arguing against them for an unfair fight. I believe it is important that people understand the rights provided by the U.S. Constitution, that they serve on a jury whenever they can, and that those rights be protected and maintained, especially in light of the State’s general advantage in most criminal cases. If our rights aren’t held in the highest regard, someday they may be compromised, if not eliminated altogether.