Sandra Peterson has learned during 35 years with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office the importance of understanding defendants and her duty to protect their rights.
“When you describe your work, you often get the ‘How do you feel if they’re guilty?’ question,” said Peterson, a legal associate in the Appleton, Stevens Point and Sheboygan offices. “That’s where I go into, ‘We have to police the police. Everybody is afforded the same rights.’”
As a support staff member, she said, it’s her job to make sure those rights are preserved.
“We go to the jail and we talk to the people who are arrested the night before,” Peterson said. “We determine eligibilities for lawyers, find them lawyers, get bail information and work on the cases when they’re assigned to staff.”
But her work, she said, involves more than that.
“Often, you’re the first person they’re in contact with after they’ve been picked up,” Peterson said. “You’re the first person to help them in a very big crisis in their lives. They’re reassured. They’ll give me a phone number to call to go let their dog out.
“It’s those small, little victories, helping them with the things they worry about.”
Peterson said that learning about the challenges defendants face is just as important as learning about the law.
“Each case has its own learning curve; arsons or shaken babies or accident reconstruction,” she said. “So, it’s just a constant change.”
And Peterson said she is ready to keep learning.
“It’s so important what we do,” she said. “I want to continue helping everyone who comes in the door. We need to help them navigate their way through the system.
“And people can help no matter what role they play. Client services, the investigation service staff, we can all make it easier.”