By Shelley Gupta, Marion County Prosecutor’s Office
Have you ever wanted to get to know Chief Public Defender Robert Hill, how he got to where he is, and his thoughts on the criminal justice system? I had the opportunity to sit down with Hill to ask him about his background, how he got into practice and his path to becoming Chief Public Defender. As an added bonus, he shared some practice tips along with his thoughts on the criminal justice system.
Robert J. Hill was born in Texas, spent his youth in Alabama and then moved to northwestern Indiana when he was a sophomore in high school. He hasn’t left Indiana since. Hill joked that he was a terrible high school student but was a stellar college student at Ball State University, where he studied history, political science and speech. After college, he went to graduate school for history.
After his first year of his graduate program, Hill faced several opportunities and had to make a choice: an assistanceship in the Communications Department at Ball State, a job with Prudential, or law school. Hill, unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, and not quite ready to give up the student life, decided to go to law school at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
Hill wasn’t sure law school was for him until he interned at the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office after his first year of law school. There, he worked with people wanting to file cases, helped with mediations and screened cases. After having the opportunity to work with people, he decided practicing law would work for him. The following year, Hill interned at the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, which inspired him to take trial advocacy classes through the remainder of law school.
Following graduation from law school, Hill started his legal career as a deputy prosecuting attorney for about a year. Then, he went into private practice where he did family law, private defense work, and several part time public defender (PD) positions. Most notably, the late Judge Patricia Gifford offered Hill a public defender position in Criminal Court 4, which he did for a number of years.
The Path to Chief Public Defender
In 1993, the Marion County Public Defender Agency (MCPDA) was formed. Hill was the first chief trial deputy under Chief Public Defender Fran Watson. He really enjoyed this position as he had the opportunity to train and recruit younger attorneys. After eight years, he went back to private practice, where he continued to maintain a criminal defense practice and PD contracts. He began to take on death penalty cases, at both the state and federal levels. These cases took him across the country for months at a time.
On April 15, 2008, Hill came back to the MCPDA. At first, he was trying to recruit others to take the job of Chief Public Defender when Dave Cook left; however, the PD board members started recruiting him because he had tried every type of case, had been the Chief Trial Deputy, played an active role in training new attorneys, and he was (and currently is) on the board of directors. Initially, Hill did not want the position, but he reconsidered after some reflection on his life: he was getting worn out from all the traveling and the death penalty cases, he thought being chief PD would be a good opportunity, and it would be a fun and interesting challenge.
Ultimately, he does not regret his decision to take on the role of chief PD.
Hill enjoys being a PD because he is able to help people and ensure that the criminal justice system works the way it’s supposed to: that everyone is given their constitutional rights and due process. His breaks from full- time public defense (particularly his time as a family law attorney) made him appreciate criminal defense work. He felt his clients for criminal charges received more satisfaction from his representation because he lived up to his obligation as a PD under the law and as an attorney. Additionally, his work in death penalty cases gave him an appreciation for the humanity of people. They didn’t just get to where they are because of one bad day (usually). It’s typically an entire host of circumstances that brought the person to where they are. After that work, he takes special care to get to know his clients as people and to work to figure out what they need to help them get to being productive members of society (or at least give them a place to start).
As chief PD, Hill has worked to make the agency a place that can help people. When he first started as chief PD in 2008, there were no social workers. Now, there are 19 social workers who work with the PDs and their clients to figure out what a good sentence would be and to figure out what they need to not be in the same situation again. Hill’s goal is to be more restorative, rather than retributive. If we work towards restoration, it will not only save us money in the end, but also make our society better.
What follows are his responses to my questions. Rather than summarizing, I think his advice is best as he gave it:
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Helping people and interacting with other lawyers. Not every reward you get from practicing law is financial. A lot of what you get is good for your soul and good for your karma, and we could all use some good karma.
What’s your least favorite part of the job?
I hate when personnel issues erupt because of less than adequate effort on the lawyer’s part. I don’t like having to discipline people, but it comes with the job. I have an expectation of appropriate behavior and that the PDs have to work for the client and work on the case.
Also, the financial situation and the lack of wisdom of fully funding both the MCPDA and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office is frustrating. It’s frustrating that there are things that we could be doing but can’t because there’s no funding, and we aren’t paying PDs and prosecutors what they’re worth.
What advice do you have for people considering law school?
Avoid debt. If you can’t avoid it, have as little as possible. Take your time and if you have to work your way through, do so.
What advice do you have for newlyminted attorneys?
Count on working hard and being frustrated. You don’t know enough to practice law and you have to learn a lot on the fly. It’s hard to build a business and expenses can get out of hand quickly and so can debt. Remember to divide everything into thirds – one third to pay yourself, one third for overhead expenses, one third for building your business. You should also find a good mentor and have someone who knows the practicalities of practice to help you. This is probably more important than the last year of law school. A lot of young lawyers take on cases they don’t have any business taking on. This is a huge mistake and often with disastrous results for everyone involved.
What do you have to say to people who are frustrated with the criminal justice system?
It’s underfunded; we need more judges, prosecutors and PDs. We need higher salaries; we need more intervention programs that are restorative rather than punitive. The money you invest in the criminal justice system is money well-spent. Money put into rehabilitative programs is the best money you can spend, and long prison sentences are not the best prison sentences.
What do you see as the most challenging issue facing PDs?
A lot of times, people devalue what PDs do – they see us as a lesser part of the criminal justice system, when we are co-equal to the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement and courts, both pay-wise and respect-wise.
How do we overcome the devaluation issue?
We have to tell people that we deserve respect; PDs can’t play into the problem. We need to demand respect and expect it – and have the same considerations for budget. We have to show what our value is for the system, and we do that by helping other agencies succeed.
If you could change one thing about the criminal law system, what would it be?
We need to focus on rehabilitation and helping reclaim lives for people rather than punishing them. We have to help society value the work the criminal justice system does and not always try to do things the cheap way.
What do you wish prosecutors knew about defense, and what do you wish they kept in mind as they work their cases?
Cases are more than just a set of facts; frequently, there are two people involved (the victim and the defendant), and it’s hard for prosecutors to see the “humanness” of the person who committed the offense and by that I mean the whole totality of what makes up the person’s background, their character and their role. I wish prosecutors could see the human side of cases; it’s more than how many times this person has been convicted. Look at the person as a human. Prosecutors have the ability to help people get free of the criminal justice system.•
This article originally appeared on the Criminal Justice Section page. To see more from the section, visit indybar.org/cjs.