Like many others, Azra Ozdemir’s parents sent her off on the first day of school with the usual sage advice about doing well so she could get into a good college.
That was her first day of kindergarten.
“I knew three words in English: Yes. No,” and the letter P to indicate the need to use the facilities. But by the end of that first year, “the teacher was already telling my parents that I was talking too much in class.”
Now a law student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Ozdemir speaks for others who might encounter language, cultural or financial barriers. She has been working in the Las Vegas Misdemeanor Clinic at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.
A misdemeanor charge usually indicates a lesser infraction, like a driving violation, and carries a penalty of less than one year in jail. Misdemeanors can include endangering the welfare of a child and sex crimes, like prostitution.
Based on arrest data from the FBI and other statistical reports, legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff of Harvard University estimates that 80% of all arrests are misdemeanors, according to her website. “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal,” is the title of her 2018 book on the subject.
While misdemeanors have decreased in the past decade, Blacks and Hispanics are arrested at much higher rates than whites, according to the Data Collective for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. John Jay College is part of the City University of New York.
Ozdemir says growing up, she saw other immigrants also at a loss for where to find legal help, particularly for lesser charges like misdemeanors.
“I just saw so much of the hardship in my community and just how hard it was to get a good immigration lawyer, even in my own family,” she said. “There was nobody we could talk to, you know. Nobody knew.”
Now that she’s part of the legal community in Las Vegas, Ozdemir said she realizes that many resources are available.
“I wanted to really just pick a career where I could just be a part of this community that helps with the people in need, and to me the best way to do that was to be a lawyer,” said Ozdemir, who also credits hours and hours of watching court television while waiting after school in her father’s car repair shop.
Although misdemeanors will be reduced in Nevada from criminal charges in 2023 when the law will lessen their legal impact, until then a motorist could be offered community service or be sent to jail for rolling through a stop sign, she said, if the person misses a court date or fails to pay a fine.
“If you have to spend a night or two in jail to pay off a ticket, what about your work? What about your employment? A lot of people in that situation are already having a hard time with making ends meet. So, what are we expecting them to take time off of work?” she asked.
Jails are crowded. Not everyone incarcerated may be in the best of health, physical or mental. There might be needs at home that imperil family members -- child or elder care -- without the jailed person present.
Ozdemir and UNLV classmate Mia Bacher work with the courts to find a solution that works for both parties.
“We're like, ‘Hey, this is really what the issue is,’ and oftentimes, we really hope that the judges or the courts are understanding and accepting. Sometimes they're not and then we need to get creative with solutions. So, it's an interesting situation.”
Azra and her parents came to the U.S. from Turkey on a family sponsorship in 1996 when she was five years old. Her aunt had married an American, and other family members followed. Education was always paramount, she was told. UNLV, she said, offers experiential learning that gives students hands-on exposure to their field beyond the classroom.
“It's an incredible opportunity for everybody involved that we get to work really closely with our clients, and we really get to know them and interview them and really see what their specific needs are,” Ozdemir said. “It's probably one of the best things I've done so far in my education.”