The chapbook Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender (or how I became a punk rock lawyer) by Juanita E. Mantz, Esq. is a multi-genre chapbook containing memoir pieces, social justice essays and poetry. It describes the author’s love of punk rock and her quest to challenge the system of mass incarceration as a deputy public defender and the intersection between punk rock and public defense.
What do the Talking Heads and the Clash have to do with the Post Conviction Justice Project Clinic at USC? Everything. Music is not just the soundtrack, but indeed the grounding inspiration for Juanita E. Mantz’s depiction of her evolution from punk princess drop-out to deputy public defender in Riverside California. Mantz’s hybrid memoir makes hard left turns and arrives at surprising destinations; after a toxic stop in corporate law (where one white male partner mistakes her for a paralegal), the author returns to California, rejects the big dollars and elects working with poor clients, many of whom are categorized as mentally incompetent. In dramatic anecdotes that read like stanzas of the Bowie/Mercury song, “Under Pressure” Mantz describes the broken criminal system she must navigate, even as she follows an internal moral compass that never lets her or her readers off the hook. At moments raucous and at others deeply melancholy, Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender forces us to consider our past and our future: why bail doesn’t work and how the murder of George Floyd challenges us to do more to transform the criminal justice system, and our relationship with each other. An irresistible, thoughtful, and inspiring read.
—Stephanie Barbé Hammer, author of The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior, and Rescue Plan
There’s nothing punk about being a lawyer unless you’re a deputy public defender like Juanita E. Mantz. Mantz went from nearly “ruining her own life in just months” senior year to becoming a defender of mentally ill patients, representing those who have been found unfit to stand trial, rendered nearly voiceless by the system designed to protect them. From Mantz, we learn about the system from the inside, and how her own struggles and punk ethos brought her to this work.
—Michelle Cruz Gonzales author of The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band
Mantz has put her record collection and big black boots where her mouth is in her work as a deputy public defender; every day she fights to help the poor and mentally ill, she embodies the music and lyrics of her favorite punk bands that kept her fired up as a teenage high school dropout. After reading this impassioned, deeply personal work that weaves memoir and poetry with the heartbreaking ins and outs of a broken legal system, I can think of no one else living their values as purely as she is.
—Shawna-Lee I. Perrin, author of Radio Waves: A Post-Punk Novel
Like the allegory of the twin brothers in her essay, “Bail - How Times Are A-Changin’,” there are so many ways in which Juanita E. Mantz and I have led parallel lives. We are both Inland Empire Gen X’ers, Class of 1989. We both shoplifted and lived to tell about it. Listened to the same music. Got our butts kicked in fights we were sorely outmatched for. Skipped school. Wrote poetry. We were honors and GATE kids who lost their way. My own high school graduation hinged on my repeated failure of Algebra 1, but at the last minute, the counselors decided that my computer science class — yes, the one where we learned to make cheesy greeting cards with clip art and cliches— counted as math, barely squeaking by while I watched as my best friend became valedictorian.
But here is where our stories diverged: She did not graduate. And yet, because of that punk rock resistance to conform to expectations, she turned her failure to an advantage and determination, first getting her G.E.D., then a B.A. in English Lit, and her J.D. from USC. She ditched the lucrative world of corporate law to become a punk rock deputy public defender, using her experience as a troubled youth as a springboard for empathy and advocacy. And now, once a writer, always a writer, she’s onward toward her MFA, and using her voice as a megaphone to call out the injustices she’s witness to every day in the courtroom, advocating for those the system seeks to silence and sweep under the rug. These essays are proof that, “Tomorrow is another day. You will be OK.” Especially for those in the criminal justice system who’ve got Juanita on their side.
—Cati Porter, author of The Body at a Loss, executive director of the Inlandia Institute
In gentle and compassionate prose, Juanita E. Mantz pulls back the curtain on the criminal justice system in a way the general public does not ordinarily see, and places us squarely into the shoes of her clients whose humanity is above anything else. Revealing her own personal history as a high school dropout and her enduring love for punk rock, Mantz reveals her strength to rise as an attorney who does not give up on her clients, especially in our society which has normalized the “criminal” as someone to be discarded and forgotten. Mantz reveals an egregiously broken system where economic structures can doom the most economically vulnerable to criminality. Mantz’s memoir as a Deputy Public Defender is a must-read for every American who cares about our justice system and the individuals who endure within it.
—Elsa Valmidiano, author of We Are No Longer Babaylan
Through Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender, we are afforded the chance to witness the individuality, commitment and passion of one woman’s vision. Juanita E. Mantz has an unfaltering strength rooted in a unique mestizaje: a Latina warrior heart and a punk rock passion for the marginalized, the abandoned and the voiceless. Her stories trace the faultlines of teen angst and the urgent lack of agency one feels when left alone, only to find a deep well of purpose aimed towards protecting the undefended. An illuminating account of the real battles from within the criminal justice system.
—Leticia Del Toro, author, Café Colima