News and Events
First-year Law Student Develops an Interest in Criminal Defense
First-year Pepperdine law student, Rachel Rossi, says she wasn’t afraid to meet criminals in prison and interview them.
Before she came to Pepperdine School of Law, Rachel had an internship with the Orange County Public Defender’s office, where she met individuals right after they were arrested and before they had seen an attorney.
“Most of them were really scared that they would be deported,” says Rachel.
For Rachel, the only “scary” element was speaking to them in Spanish—the primary language of many clients. In her early years, Rachel was fluent but had since become a little rusty. Through the internship, Rachel not only bettered her Spanish, she also learned the practical application of the law, and fell in love with client interaction.
Rachel began thinking about criminals, the law, and our justice system when she attended Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California. Dr. Elizabeth Leonard, who taught sociology, talked to Rachel about law and our judicial system. Dr. Leonard helped her attain the internship at the public defender’s office and encouraged her to attend law school.
After graduating college, Rachel landed a job as a paralegal working for a criminal defense attorney in Santa Cruz, California. There, she continued to learn the nuts and bolts of defense, but unlike her internship with the public defenders, there were fewer client interactions.
To supplement the job, Rachel spent her evenings volunteering with an after-care program called Friends Outside. Friends Outside assists families, prisoners, and ex-prisoners with the immediate and long-term effects of incarceration. Their national office lies in San Jose, and they have twelve local chapters throughout California and Nevada. Part of their mission is “to act as a bridge between those we serve, the community at large and the criminal justice system, thereby enhancing the character of justice.” This notion of bridging the gap, partnered with the idea that effective after-care could prevent future crimes, greatly appealed to Rachel.
“Over 50 percent of people in prison have been there before,” she says. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, in a fifteen-state survey, more than two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years. The statistics are discouraging, but Rachel is hopeful. “If you can reach someone, the cycle can be broken,” she says.
Rachel began working as an after-care case worker with Friends Outside, which meant she helped released criminals integrate back into society. “It’s amazing how many disadvantages they have coming out of prison,” she says. “A lot of them do want to get back on their feet again, but they have all these obstacles to overcome in order to do it.”
Many of them had no driver’s license, transportation, hygiene products, or even a change of clothes. Rachel helped them with practical tasks such as finding an apartment, filling out job applications, contacting family members, and getting a haircut.
Some clients accepted a little help before quickly running off. In those moments, the work was particularly challenging. “Sometimes I wondered if I was making any difference, but then I realized it’s about the small victories,” she says.
Helping one man stay organized by integrating his day-planner into his wallet, was a small victory. Cheering on another man for his streak of “sober days,” was another positive.
Despite the successes, Rachel is not all smiles and rainbows about the process; rather, she has a very realistic attitude. “I have a heart for these people,” she says. “It’s a difficult situation when you’re helping criminals; they have to want to change. But no matter what they have done, it does not disqualify them from being treated ethically.”
Considering her attitude and passion for the field, she seems to be a perfect fit. So will she defend major lawbreakers for a career?
“I have so much to learn first!” says Rachel. For now, she’s still studying, absorbing, and working through her first year of law school.
By Emily Di Frisco